Posted on Wed, Feb. 25, 2004
ARRAIGNMENT HEARING: In court Tuesday, Judge Henry Leyte-Vidal asks about the finances of Kathy and Jesus Hernandez. He said they were not entitled to a public defender for their son, Michael Hernandez. TIM CHAPMAN/HERALD STAFF | More photos...
SOUTHWOOD SCHOOL SLAYING
Teen pleads not guilty to murder
Because the parents of Michael Hernandez have adequate assets, a judge says they must find a private attorney for their son, who skips arraignment on a murder charge.
BY MATTHEW I. PINZUR
The 14-year-old boy indicted on a murder charge in the stabbing of his Southwood Middle School classmate entered a not guilty plea on Tuesday, and the judge said his parents were too wealthy for him to have a public defender.
To the chagrin of prosecutors, Michael Hernandez did not appear at the arraignment hearing but entered the plea through his attorney, Liesbeth Boots.
''We believe that, under the law, he's required to be present,'' said Assistant State Attorney Carin Kahgan, who wanted Circuit Judge Henry Leyte-Vidal to speak directly to the teen to assess his competence.
Leyte-Vidal accepted the plea and ordered Hernandez to appear in court on March 12 with his new attorney. The teenager has been in custody since Feb. 3, when investigators say he cut the neck of Jaime Gough in a bathroom of the Palmetto Bay school.
`NOTHING TO OFFER'
Criminal defendants routinely avoid early court appearances, especially in high-profile cases, said Milton Hirsch, a prominent defense attorney and expert on criminal procedure.
''I don't want my client there -- he will have nothing to offer and he brings nothing to these hearings, because they're not particularly substantive,'' Hirsch said. ``Having him there will make him anxious and nervous and subject him to the predatory practices of journalists, so there's no reason for him to be there and every reason for him not to be there.''
Leyte-Vidal told Hernandez's parents to find a private lawyer for their son. Jesus and Kathy Hernandez testified they have assets totaling at least $245,000.
''I don't think they qualify for a public defender,'' Leyte-Vidal said.
Most of the assets come from a retirement savings account and equity in their Perrine home, which county records indicate is valued at nearly $125,000.
Jesus Hernandez runs a resale shop, which he said brings in $800 to $2,000 a month. His wife is an occupational therapist at Baptist Hospital and said she takes home around $2,600 a month. They also have a daughter at the University of Florida.
The family may request another hearing to ask for the public defender to be kept on. The complexity of a case with a 14-year-old murder defendant is extreme, Boots said, and private lawyers have already told the family they would charge as much as $100,000 just to take the case.
''This is not your typical grand theft auto,'' Boots said.