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No prison for mother of Cristian Fernandez

Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center | August 19, 2013

By Larry Hannan Mon, Aug 19, 2013 @ 9:24 am

One child is dead and one, Cristian Fernandez, is in juvenile custody for killing him. Their mother has paid the price for contributing to both, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Circuit Judge James Daniel sentenced Biannela Susana, 27, to 10 years in prison. But he credited her with the two years, four months she’s already served in jail awaiting the consequences and suspended the rest of the sentence to probation.

As long as Susana abides by the conditions, she will not have to go to prison for her role in the death of Cristian’s half brother, 2-year-old David Galarraga.

She also must spend 90 days in the Hubbard House domestic violence shelter and then two years at Community Connections, a halfway house that was proposed during a previous hearing where she will get mental health counseling and life skills help.

“I can’t wait to give my sister a hug, a real hug, outside of jail,” said Jessica Callow, Susana’s half sister.

Assistant State Attorney Mark Caliel, who argued for a 15-year sentence, said he hoped Susana could rehabilitate herself.

“We hope that Ms. Susana takes advantage of this huge opportunity the judge gave her because, quite frankly, I don’t think she was deserving of that opportunity,” Caliel said.

The sentencing ends a criminal case that focused international attention on a Jacksonville mother and child who were charged with killing their son and brother. The State Attorney’s Office was criticized for overcharging Fernandez when it originally sought first-degree murder charges that would have put the 12-year-old in prison for the rest of his life.

Daniel said the evidence that Susana needed immediate mental health counseling was the primary reason for her release.

“She needs specialized treatment for a mental disorder,” Daniel said. “Her mental health condition clearly requires treatment that is unavailable in prison.”

Psychologist Jacqueline Brown with the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center testified last month that Susana is a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder that goes back to her husband killing himself in front of two of her children.

Daniel said state guidelines suggested a 13-year sentence, but he went lower because Susana had expressed genuine remorse, the crime was an isolated event and she didn’t pose a threat to the community.

But she has to abide by the rules of Hubbard House and Community Connections or will go to prison. She will also violate her probation if she tests positive for drugs, is arrested for another crime or is unemployed and not actively looking for work anytime during the next seven years.

After she completes her time at Community Connections, the Weaver center has said it will hire her. The center helps at-risk girls — many with backgrounds involving some form of abuse — before and after they get in trouble with the law.

“I’ve come to realize the incredible potential that Biannela has,” said Lawanda Ravoira. president and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center. “She needs intervention and treatment, not prison.”

Ravoira has met with Susana weekly for the past year. Daniel said Susana must work for the center for at least three years after leaving Community Connections.

Susana pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter for neglecting David by not getting him to a hospital in time and for covering up past violence. She could have gotten up to 30 years.

Caliel said Susana’s time in jail was not enough because she lied to the police and waited eight hours after getting a call from Cristian telling her that David was unconscious from falling off his bunk bed.

It was later determined Cristian slammed him into a bookshelf after being left alone with him in their apartment in March 2011.

Susana researched information about head trauma on the Internet and at one point put David’s unconscious body in the car and drove some of her other children to school.

A doctor told police the boy might have survived his injuries, including a skull fracture, had Susana not waited to get medical help.

But Daniel said it was unclear if going to the doctor earlier would have helped.

“The evidence is inconclusive to determine if prompt action would have saved David’s life,” Daniel said, adding that was another factor that led to his decision to let Susana avoid prison.

Prosecutors conceded that Susana believed Cristian’s story about David falling off the bed. But Caliel argued she had similarly lied to authorities about another incident between Cristian and David two months earlier when he broke the boy’s leg. She also waited two days to seek medical attention out of fear her children would be taken away.

Cristian, now 14, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and aggravated battery in the case and received juvenile sanctions. He won’t be released from a juvenile jail until January 2018 when he turns 19. After that he will serve eight years of probation.

At 12 when the crime occurred, he was the youngest person ever charged as an adult with first-degree murder in Jacksonville. That charge led to an international outcry.

“The truth is he never should have been charged with first-degree murder at that age,” said University of Miami law professor Tamara Lave, who has been following the case. “The way the prosecution and police handled this was unpardonable.”

While Cristian was still facing first-degree murder charges, Circuit Judge Mallory Cooper ruled police interrogations of Cristian could not be used during trial. She ruled that Cristian didn’t comprehend his Miranda rights or the implication of waiving them.

State Attorney Angela Corey said she didn’t want to lock Cristian up for the rest of his life, but Lave said that made no sense since Corey had charged him with a crime that mandated life without the possibility of parole.

After Daniel’s ruling Wednesday, Caliel defended his prosecution of both, saying the people who were critical were uneducated and uninformed when it comes to Florida law and didn’t understand what the facts and circumstances of the case were.

There is discretion provided for minors convicted of first-degree murder that is not allowed for adults, and at no time did the state attorney want to put Cristian in prison for the rest of his life, Caliel said.

Susana’s background also was examined during the sentencing hearing. She had Cristian at 12 after being the victim of statutory rape. She ended up in foster care with her son and saw him molested. After marrying at 18 and having three other children, her husband killed himself in front of two of the kids after he was accused of abusing Cristian.

Susana’s two other children were adopted by the same family in August 2012, according to the Department of Children and Family Services. Susana has given up her parental rights.

Caliel said representatives of the family that adopted the two children were in court Wednesday. Susana is not allowed to have any contact with the two children and can only have contact with Fernandez with prior permission from the state.

Callow said her family had received enormous hate and scorn over the past few years, and she hopes the sentence reminds people that Susana is a human being.

“It’s very easy to judge when you’re not in the middle of it,” Callow said. “But I hope people know my sister is a good human being who needs help.”

She will carry the pain and guilt of losing her child with her until the day she dies, and that’s worse than any prison sentence that could have been imposed, Callow said.

Lave said she hopes the case leads the state to consider the support it offers to at-risk children.

“Cristian Fernandez and Biannela Susana both had traumatic childhoods, and the resources didn’t really exist to help them,” Lave said. “You could say the state doesn’t have the money to help, but in the end it’s going to cost much more to keep people like them in prison than to help them out earlier in life.”

Caliel said encouraged people to spend more time focusing on David Galarraga and his two siblings and that they are the victims, not Cristian Fernandez and Biannela Susana.

Larry Hannan: (904) 359-4470

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