A crowd of Jose Hernandez's family members — sisters, nieces, his newlywed wife — wept outside the courtroom Wednesday morning after Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara McDermott imposed one of the toughest sentences yet given to a juvenile lifer in Philadelphia: 45 years to life for the 1988 murder of his family members.
"There is no denying that this is one of the most heinous crimes any of the attorneys in this room or the court has seen," McDermott said at the resentencing — one of more than 300 being held in Philadelphia for individuals sentenced as juveniles to mandatory life-without-parole terms that the U.S. Supreme Court has since found unconstitutional.
But she clarified that a different consideration had swayed her: "Acceptance of responsibility is a factor."
At trial, Hernandez insisted that he was not the one who killed his pregnant stepmother, Carmen Hernandez, and his little stepbrothers, Frankie, 5, and 8-month-old Jonathan. He said his father, Catalino — by all accounts a violent and abusive man who frequently threatened to kill his family members — took their lives, and then Hernandez took his. He maintains his innocence in those three murders to this day.
But at a lengthy resentencing hearing held June 25, innocence was not the question. Instead, Hernandez's public defender, William Reilly, sought to offer mitigating evidence. That included testimony from two of his sisters who described a childhood terrorized by Catalino Hernandez, who they said tried to kill Hernandez when he was a young child, ordered him to jump off a balcony and burned his hand on a hot stove. And it covered his transformation in prison, where he's become a skilled plumber and has only accrued three minor misconducts over 30 years.
McDermott's sentence was above the 38 years recommended by the District Attorney's Office — the longest sentence requested in a juvenile lifer case since DA Larry Krasner took office. Still, a spokesman, Ben Waxman, said the office respects the decision: "The outcome should not be surprising given the facts of the case. This was a horrific quadruple murder that included two young children as victims."
"When you're concerned about a lack of remorse, what you're really concerned with is, this person will go out and do this again," Reilly said. "But, here, he has 30 years of nonviolence. That should have overridden any concerns."
Hernandez will not be eligible for parole until he's 62 years old; in prison, 55 is considered geriatric. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently agreed to consider whether 50 years to life constitutes a de facto life sentence in the case of Michael Felder, who shot two other teens in a basketball-court beef in 2009, killing one of them. To impose a life sentence for a juvenile in Pennsylvania, prosecutors must prove that the defendant is "irreparably corrupt or irretrievably depraved."
Reilly said he'd seek reconsideration of the sentence, given that the Supreme Court decision on juvenile lifers emphasizes rehabilitation: "Because he was a juvenile, the law requires a focus on reform and rehabilitation, and Jose has demonstrated that. This extra 15 years can only be interpreted as punishment, which should not be the focus of sentencing a juvenile even for cases as disturbing as this."