The name of Gabriel Fernandez still hangs heavy over the City of Los Angeles.
From the day the 8-year-old was found by Fire Department personnel on the floor of his Palmdale home after they responded to a 911 call from his mother, his story loomed large in the daily news. The paramedics had found Gabriel badly bruised and unresponsive, with profound injuries – broken ribs, a cracked skull, missing teeth, burnt skin, and BB bullets imbedded in his lungs and groin – that didn’t fit with the explanation they had been given for his condition.
His mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, claimed the boy had been injured by falling over a dresser and hitting his head. Gabriel was pronounced brain dead at the hospital on that same day, May 22, 2013; he was taken off life support and passed away two days later.
That tragic incident was the beginning of a seven-year ordeal for Gabriel’s family, his community, and the city itself. The child had been the victim of horrific and systematic abuse, perpetrated by his mother and Aguirre and allegedly motivated at least partly by Aguirre’s belief that the boy was gay; worse yet, other family members, as well as Gabriel’s teacher, had notified Children and Family Services multiple times over concerns that he was being mistreated, yet social workers had found, in every case but one, that their reports were unfounded – despite what seemed in retrospect to be clear indications to the contrary.
Fernandez and Aguirre were charged with first-degree murder in the death of Gabriel, with a special circumstance for torture, and in an unprecedented move, county prosecutors also charged four county social workers with one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying records.
The case dominated headlines as the ensuing investigation and court proceedings revealed ever more disturbing details about Gabriel’s short life and cruel death. The prosecution sought the death penalty for both of the perpetrators, who admitted to killing the child but claimed it had not been a pre-meditated act. Finally, in 2018, Aguirre was found guilty of the first degree changes and sentenced to death; Fernandez avoided the death penalty by agreeing to plead guilty.
In January of 2020, the charges against the four social workers were thrown out by a three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeals.
Now, Netflix is set to unveil “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” a six-part docuseries which examines the case as it was laid out by LA County prosecutors, as well as chronicling journalistic efforts to track the weaknesses within the government agencies devoted to children’s welfare that permitted such a heartbreaking act to take place. Directed by documentarian Brian Knappenberger (“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press”), it’s a gripping (and grim) deep dive into the case that may well be the most intense and upsetting true crime series the streaming network has produced so far.
Casting lead prosecutor Jon Hatami in the role of avenging hero, Knappenberger’s chronicle of the court case carefully avoids straying into sensationalism without shying away from the gruesome facts of Gabriel’s life.
Through trial footage, interviews, and footage shot specifically for the show, we are given as comprehensive a look at the story as is possible in six hours of television, with the benefit and clarity of hindsight to assist in offering an overarching view of not only what happened, but of the systemic problems that led to a failure by those charged with protecting at-risk children to prevent the worst from happening to Gabriel.
Perhaps most effectively, it repeatedly reminds us, through photos, footage, and the words of those who knew him, that Gabriel was a kind, loving, and gentle child who deserved much better treatment at the hands of those who should have been his caretakers.
As for the assertion that homophobia was a factor in Aguirre’s brutal beating and killing of his de-facto stepson, it doesn’t offer a lot of detail – prosecutors chose not to pursue a hate crime charge for strategic reasons, so that angle was only supplemental in proving a case for pre-meditation based solely on factual evidence – but it makes sure we hear about it in both through Hatami’s court statements and from the mouths of family members, who assert that Gabriel had been taken by the couple from his uncle and same-sex partner (previously given custody when his mother “didn’t want him” at birth) because they didn’t approve of a child being raised by gay parents. By all reports, Gabriel experienced the happiest and most supportive environment of his short life when he lived with them.
The Netflix series spends considerable time hammering home the shocking reality of the violence suffered by little Gabriel (described by Los Angeles Judge George G. Lomeli at Aguirre’s sentencing as “horrendous, inhumane and nothing short of evil”), and rightly so; to do anything less would be a disservice to his memory.
Once it has done that, however, it sets its sights on the deeply shrouded county bureaucracy of Child and Family Services, the uniquely autonomous and powerful agency that oversees child welfare, and paints perhaps an even more disturbing picture of an organization overworked, understaffed, hamstrung by the financial priorities of privatization, and cloistered in a stubborn veil of secrecy that resisted not just inquiries from the press but from prosecutors as well. It also makes clear that law enforcement officials were well aware of the prior history of reported abuse in the Fernandez home before that fateful day when Gabriel’s life came to an end.
At the same time, Knappenberger takes care to offer a balanced view of the more complex ethical issues at the core of the case. His coverage of the four accused social workers, singled out in the minds of many as scapegoats by county officials looking for a means of damage control, is fair and compassionate, offering a glimpse at the daunting pressure and moral quandaries that face such social workers; that it never quite lets them off the hook for the choices they made in handling Gabriel’s situation before it was too late is more testament to the journalistic integrity to which the series aspires.
Though the case of Gabriel Fernandez made the news nationwide, many outside of Los Angeles itself will likely only have passing familiarity with what happened. With “The Trials of Gabriel Hernandez,” Netflix is ensuring that Gabriel’s heartbreaking story will be known by millions – and while some may be hesitant to watch due to the disturbing nature of its conflict, it’s a show that demands to be seen. It reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that there are monsters in the world; but it also reminds us that for every Isauro Aguirre or Pearl Fernandez, there is also a Jon Hatami – someone who will stand up to fight for justice in the name of those who have suffered at their hands.
Perhaps most important, it reminds us there is still much work to be done in perfecting the systems we have in place to serve our children – and that unrelenting, powerful journalism is still the best tool we have for holding those systems accountable.
“The Trials of Gabriel Hernandez” premiered on Wednesday, February 26, on Netflix.