“This is not over,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Lomeli said Monday, Nov. 20, denying the defense’s motion for a mistrial after the first-degree murder conviction of Isauro Aguirre. The onetime Palmdale security guard faces the death penalty for the torture-killing of Gabriel Fernandez, his girlfriend’s 8-year-old son whom Aguirre believed to be gay.
Defense attorney John Alan argued that Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami’s emotional statements to the media after the Nov. 15 verdict were evidence that Aguirre would not get a fair penalty hearing on Monday, Nov. 27.
During the trial, Hatami argued that Aguirre, 37, and the boy’s mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, 34, took custody of Gabriel from his maternal grandparents in order to collect welfare payments and thatAguirre “actually liked torturing Gabriel. He got off on it” because he thought the 8 year old was gay.
Hatami showed photos of the Gabriel’s abused body to the jury, arguing that Aguirre tortured Gabriel for months. Gabriel was “being starved and punched and kicked and abused and beaten … he was belittled, bullied and called gay. His teeth were knocked out. He was tied up every night in a box. … Gabriel was dying,’’ the prosecutor said.
In August 2014, court testimony from his two siblings revealed that Gabriel was forced to eat cat feces, beaten with bats, “a club which knocked out Gabriel’s teeth, BB gun and pepper spray shot in Gabriel’s face, and whippings with the metal part of a belt at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend over eight months,” according to court documents.
At night the boy was “bound and gagged inside a small cabinet with a ‘sock in his mouth, a shoelace (tying) up his hands, a bandanna over his face’ and his ankles handcuffed,” City News Service reported.
The 6-foot-2, 270-pound defendant admittedly punched Gabrielle 10 times in the head and kicked him hard enough to dent the wall on May 22, 2013. He and the mother covered up the biggest dent with a picture and got rid of bloody clothing before calling 911. When paramedics arrived, they found Gabriel unconscious with a cracked skull, three broken ribs and BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin. Declared brain dead, Gabrielle died two days later.
Defense attorney Michael Sklar told the jury of seven women and five men that Aguirre “acted in a rage of anger followed by an explosion of violence” and not with premeditation after Gabriel asked his mother to leave her boyfriend. “He was completely out of control,” Sklar said.
The jury found Aguirre guilty of first-degree murder with a special circumstance of murder involving the infliction of torture. During the penalty phase of the trial on Monday, he faces the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
After the verdict was read, Hatami embraced Gabriel’s father. “I’m a dad and, you know, he’s a dad,” Hatami tearfully told reporters later. “It’s just two dads, and two humans in the community, just sharing the fact that maybe there was some justice.”
Hatami revealed that he is also a child abuse survivor. “I think that being a victim of child abuse, you feel powerless and no one’s there to help you. People need to fight for children and others who can’t fight for themselves,” the prosecutor said.
Pearl Sinthia Fernandez is still awaiting trial but prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for her, too. She has pleaded not guilty to the murder of her son.
The case created a public outcry, resulting in new calls for reforms of LA County’s
child welfare system and unprecedented criminal charges leveled last year against former L.A. County social workers social workers Stefanie Rodriguez and Patricia Clement and supervisors Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt who allowed Gabriel to be placed with his mother and remain in her custody despite more than 60 complaints lodged with the Department of Children and Family Services and eight investigations into the family, according to a timeline of the preventable tragedy produced by NBC4.
Last March 20, Superior Court Judge Mary Lou Villar ordered the four social workers to stand trial on child abuse and other charges. “Red flags were everywhere,” Villar said, adding that the conduct of the social workers amounted to criminal negligence.
Several LA County Sheriff’s deputies were disciplined for their failure to intervene during home welfare checks.
The LA County Board of Supervisors, on the recommendation of a blue-ribbon commission, on July 2016 set up a new agency, the Office of Child Protection, http://file.lacounty.gov/SDSInter/bos/supdocs/107324.pdf charged with improving the treatment of children in the county’s care.
Perhaps Hatami spoke for many when he asked jurors: “The social workers had a chance. The school officials had a chance. The deputies had a chance,” he said. “Now it’s up to you…. What are you going to do?”