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Salvaging a damaged child’s life

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Lawyer embraces boy once charged as an adult for murder at age 12

Mary Coxe, Cristian Fernandez, and Melissa Nelson

MARY COXE, “honorary grandmother” and GAL, left, travels 132.5 miles every Saturday to visit Cristian Fernandez, center, at Cypress Creek Juvenile Offender Correctional Center, to deliver encouragement, laughs, and hope. Also pictured is Melissa Nelson, one of Cristian’s lawyers in the high-profile case that first landed him in adult court when he was 12.

The first time Jacksonville lawyer Mary Coxe tried to pat the head of Cristian Fernandez — once a 12-year-old child indicted for first-degree murder as an adult — he recoiled like she was a rattlesnake.

“When somebody has been in lockup for two years, you don’t just come at them,” he told her.

Now he’s 16, locked in Cypress Creek Juvenile Offender Correctional Center in Lecanto, in Citrus County, where he was sent in 2013, after pleading guilty to manslaughter for the death of his 2-year-old half-brother.

Now, he lets his “honorary grandmother” and court-appointed “independent” guardian ad litem rub his head and hold his hand, and kiss him hello and goodbye.

“He’s just one of my sons at this point,” said Coxe. “It is the highest priority of anything I do. I love this kid. In the beginning, it was to salvage a life. Now I feel like he is family. It has gone beyond altruism. It’s good for me, too.”

Every Saturday, as she has for the past two and a half years, Coxe makes the 132.5-mile trip to spend three hours with Cristian, a ward of the state who will be freed when he turns 19.

“I tell him I love him no matter what, and that I believe God loves and forgives him no matter what, so he can maybe love and forgive himself,” said Coxe, now retired from practicing law.

She’s the wife of former Florida Bar President Hank Coxe, who was part of the “Dream Team” of pro bono lawyers who worked out the plea with juvenile sanctions, along with Melissa Nelson, Buddy Schultz, and others.

The high-profile criminal case landed Cristian’s mother behind bars for her plea of aggravated manslaughter for waiting nearly eight hours to take her unconscious toddler to the hospital. Her parental rights were terminated.

Mary Coxe knew Cristian needed someone, and she stepped up.

“I do not wear my religion on my sleeve, but I felt called to do this,” she said.

At first, Cristian was very quiet and reserved, as Mary Coxe tried to make him laugh, in what she called “a horrible interview room of a desk and two chairs.” Now, they meet in a large cinder block meeting room, ironically called “the chapel,” and talk about sports, books, and rap music.

They don’t talk about what happened that day in March 2011, when prosecutors say 2-year-old David Galarraga was slammed into a bookshelf while his mother left him and his 4-year-old sister alone with Cristian.

Mary Coxe does not believe Cristian meant to hurt his half-brother.

“My brothers fought all the time, but they were the same size. All little brothers I’ve known fight. He didn’t realize what he was doing. I don’t think he bashed his head against the bookcase. And it was pretty much conclusively established that had his mom taken him to the hospital right away, this would not have been a fatality,” Mary Coxe said.

She notes the irony that Cypress Creek is the best place Cristian has ever lived. No one beats him. He is fed three meals a day plus snacks. He goes to school every day. If he feels sick, there is on-site medical care. He has his own room with a bed. He can play chess, find books in the library, and create art.

But, she said, it is also the worst place he has ever lived, a facility surrounded by razor wire atop 12-foot fences.

“No one there loves him. No one knows his story or cares how it ends,” Mary Coxe said. “I know his story and I care how it ends.”

She recounted Cristian’s story, when she and Hank were recently honored by Florida’s Children First as the Northeast Area Children’s Advocates of the Year. She told the other children’s advocates gathered at the awards ceremony to keep up the lobbying, because “every child in the system does need a lawyer, a good lawyer.. . . Keep up the pressure against the abusive overuse of direct filing.

“It is my hope that never again will a 12-year-old, who is not old enough for a PG-13 movie or to play middle-school sports, that never again will a 12-year-old child, or even a 14-year-old child, have to face the specter of extended incarceration and unimaginable abuse at the hands of older, hardened criminals.”

Mary Coxe shared what she knows about Cristian’s life:

“He was born to a 12-year-old mother. His biological father was prosecuted for impregnating her. No one was there to help his mother, except her own drug addict mother. When he was 18 months old, he was hospitalized and it was discovered he had never had any immunizations. No one stepped in.

“When he was 2 1/2, he was found naked and alone, wandering in a motel parking lot at 3 a.m. with no caretaker to be found. No one intervened.

“After he was found alone in a trailer with no electricity at age 3, he and his mother were placed in foster care until her 18th birthday. He was sexually abused by other residents of the home. No one helped him. As soon as she got out, his mother took up with a man who physically abused Cristian for the next five years.

“His mother had three more children. When Cristian complained to her about the abuse, she did nothing. No one was there to help him.

“When he was 11, his step-father hit him so badly that his eye was damaged and his school sent him to the hospital. Besides the eye damage, X-rays revealed multiple old fractures of his ribs. When the police were en route to arrest the step-father, he killed himself. Cristian became the man of the house. For the next four months, his mother left him alone with the three preschoolers for extended periods, including overnights. There was no one to help him.”

When his 2-year-old half-brother was injured and later died, Cristian was a 12-year-old sixth-grader, charged as an adult and locked up in adult jail in solitary confinement for more than 30 days. He never saw his siblings again.

Mary Coxe said Cristian loves his mother, Biannela Susana, who visits him every few weeks accompanied by a family therapist, and Cristian is receiving “trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy.”

Can this teen overcome the damage of his past and live a good, productive life?

“It’s something I hope and pray for,” Mary Coxe said. “I’m not an expert. I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know. I can’t say if you can damage a child for this long and have them recover and be redeemed to normalcy. But I am a big believer in redemption.”

For the next 25 months that Cristian will remain locked up, Mary Coxe vows to visit him every Saturday. Like she always does, she’ll switch the TV from the Hallmark Channel to ESPN. They’ll talk sports. She’ll quiz him about books he’s read. She’ll try her hardest to make him laugh.

She was not allowed to give him anything for Christmas unless she gave the same thing to all 96 juveniles at the facility. All the treats must be in sealed bags. So, once again, she prepared 96 gift bags bulging with sealed snacks for her holiday visit.

And when he does get out as a 19-year-old adult, Mary Coxe said, they plan to still spend Saturday afternoons from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. together. She will invite him to her home. He’ll be on probation with a condition not to have contact with children.

Mary Coxe said she will try to have that condition relaxed, because she said she would feel comfortable letting Cristian play with her grandsons, now 1 and 3. She’s seen how gentle he is and how his face lights up when a visitor for another juvenile boy lets Cristian hold her grandbaby.

Cristian talks about getting a job and paying back his lawyers somehow, someday.

“I tell him, ‘The way you pay them back is to do well. Be somebody,’” Mary Coxe said.

“It’s in Cristian’s hands. Nobody can make him do well in school or participate in therapy. It’s his choice. He knows that and I tell him that. We talk a lot about choices and accepting responsibility for choices you make. He gets it. I have great faith he’s going to be OK.”

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