When Children Kill Other Children

Last week there was yet another  heartbreaking report of a childTamar Birckhead killing another child.  This time the news came from Jacksonville, Florida.  Cristian Fernandez is accused of beating to death his two-year-old half brother, David, when he was just twelve years old.  The state has charged Cristian with first-degree murder.  He is being prosecuted as an adult and could face a life sentence.

Stories like this get a lot of media attention.  Reporters swarm and sensationalize.  The public consumes and wants more.  To sell their papers, to drive traffic to their web sites, the press complies.

He sounds like a bad kid, we think as we read the details.  Only a monster would commit such an act, we tell each other.  He must be truly evil, we conclude as we turn the page to the next tragedy.

But wait, there is more.  Cristian himself was born to a twelve year-old child, a girl who was sexually assaulted by a 25 year-old man.  At age two, he was placed in foster care after he was found, naked and dirty, wandering the streets of South Florida at 4 a.m.  His young mother had disappeared.  His grandmother, entrusted with his care, was holed up in a nearby motel, high on cocaine.

We listen and reluctantly acknowledge the boy’s history.  But it doesn’t excuse killing your own kin, we say.  Even twelve year olds know the difference between right and wrong.  Right…?

Yet, the litany continues.  We learn that Cristian was sexually abused at age eight by an older cousin.  He acted out in troubling ways that caught the attention of officials – killing a kitten, masturbating at school, and simulating sex with classmates.  At eleven, living with his mother and her new husband in a Miami suburb, he came to school with a severe eye injury.  When he was examined at the hospital for retinal damage, Cristian told police that his stepfather had punched him in the face.   Officers arrived at their apartment only to find the man dead by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The family tried to recover.  They moved north to Jacksonville.  Cristian entered middle school, but the damage had been done.

Within months, two-year-old David was also dead, his skull fractured and his brain bleeding.  Cristian admitted to the crime.  The boys’ mother, now 25, was charged with aggravated manslaughter.  She had left her small children alone with Cristian and failed to take the unconscious toddler to the hospital quickly enough to save him.  She has pled guilty and could face 30 years in prison.

Meanwhile, Cristian’s case is pending.  After his five-year-old half brother told a psychiatrist that Cristian had sexually assaulted him, another charge was added.

Investigators, therapists, and lawyers have since weighed in.  Some say that Cristian’s actions were triggered by a “flashback” to his stepfather’s abuse, that police violated his rights, and that he lacked the intent necessary to commit the crimes.  Others say that he poses a significant risk to the community if released, that he should be held accountable for his crimes, and that he must be punished as an adult, for he was old enough to “know better.”

Motions will be filed; hearings will be held.  Reporters will ask questions, and more articles will be written.

Despite the intense degree of media attention given to such incidents, homicides committed by children under 14 are exceedingly rare in the United States.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there were only 29 in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

So, the question becomes a choice between different theories of punishment: retribution or rehabilitation.  Must we exact revenge on children when they murder other children?  Must we cast them out of society until they are old and enfeebled, as we do with the majority of adults convicted of homicide?

Or might these concepts be immaterial when sentencing young offenders?  Instead of fashioning a proportionate punishment for the death of one child at the hands of another, why not commit ourselves to the surviving child’s healing? Shouldn’t society bear some, if not most, of the responsibility for these tragedies?  Rather than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the criminal prosecution and imprisonment of a young offender like Cristian Fernandez, why not invest those monies and resources toward his recovery?

Last week as I celebrated the Jewish New Year, my rabbi reminded the congregation that the oft-used phrase, “l’chaim,” does not mean, “to a single life,” but “to lives.”  In other words, when we toast to the future, to happiness, and to health, we are not merely hoping for our own wellbeing but for the good of all.

One child’s life has already been lost.  Must we lose another?

Tamar Birckhead is an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a criminal defense attorney with more than 20 years of experience. She is a faculty supervisor of the UNC Juvenile Justice Clinic,  an academic program in which third-year law students defend children charged with criminal offenses in juvenile delinquency court.


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