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Second life sentence upheld for Florida man who killed middle school classmate in 2004

David Ovalle, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

MIAMI -- Michael Hernandez, the teen who aspired to become a killer before savagely stabbing a classmate to death at Southwood Middle School, will remain in prison for life.

A Miami appeals court on Wednesday upheld his second life sentence for the 2004 murder of 14-year-old Jaime Gough inside the middle school, a crime that stunned South Florida.

Hernandez was also 14 when he slit Jaime's throat inside a bathroom at the Palmetto Bay school campus. He has been in custody since the crime.

Originally sentenced to life after his trial in 2008, Hernandez was granted a new sentencing after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 banned automatic life terms without the possibility of parole for minors convicted of murder.

The decision in Miller v. Alabama said that such automatic sentences amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment" for juveniles whose brains had not fully formed, leaving them open to peer pressure and rash decisions. Courts must now hold full sentencing hearings so a judge may consider a defendant's youth.

At a new sentencing hearing in 2016, prosecutors presented evidence that Hernandez -- while behind bars -- remained fascinated by serial killers, gore and death-metal lyrics steeped in violent imagery.

Hernandez's defense team argued that the judge was wrong to consider the death-metal lyrics because listening to the music was protected by the First Amendment.

But the Third District Court of Appeal ruled that the judge was allowed to consider Hernandez's "continued enthusiasm" about serial killers and murders. And his "continued interest in violent music and lyrics" was "directly relevant to his lack of remorse, his indifference to the sufferings of the victims and their families, and Hernandez's prospects of rehabilitation."

"I did not anticipate rainbows and unicorns and puppies but what I received was truly grotesque," Circuit Judge John Schlesinger said of the jail calls played in court that revealed Hernandez's interests, adding: "It paints a picture of a person fascinated by killers, by violent movies, violent music lyrics, violent books and violent current events."

The appeals court found that Schlesinger's 26-page order in meting out life was "supported by competent, substantial evidence."

The convicted killer will still get a another chance to persuade a judge to release him from prison. Under a newer Florida law, he will get a "judicial review" after 25 years behind bars -- in about 11 years.

Under Wednesday's decision, Hernandez will also get a "judicial review" after 25 years for a separate attempted murder count. The teen also planned to murder another classmate but was never able to carry out the killing.

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