In the new Netflix true crime docu-series The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, director Brian Knappenberger explores the devastating murder of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.
In 2013, the Los Angeles authorities responded to a 9-1-1 call at Gabriel's family home, where they found his bruised and battered body. Gabriel was beaten into a state of unconsciousness by his mother Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre; his skull was cracked, and his ribs were broken. A police investigation into the abuse, which led to brain damage and his subsequent death after two days in a local intensive care unit, uncovered that it wasn't the first time that Gabriel's guardians had been violent towards him.
For eight months, the child had suffered significant mental and physical abuse at the hands of Pearl and Aguirre. His siblings testified about the abuse, saying that the couple behaved violently towards Gabriel in a number of ways. Punishing him for exhibiting what they described as "gay" behavior, Pearl and Aguirre would force Gabriel to eat cat litter and rotten food in addition to beating him. His teachers noticed his fresh bruises at school and grew increasingly concerned by his questions, looking to the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) for help.
The instances of abuse were reported to the DCFS, and Fernandez's case was assigned to social worker Stefanie Rodriguez. According to the documentary, Rodriguez failed to do enough follow-up on Gabriel to safely remove him from the home; she and the three other social workers on the case faced criminal charges alleging that they had minimized evidence of Gabriel's abuse. Just last month, the court found them innocent of the charges.
After Gabriel died, prosecutors pursued first-degree murder charges against Pearl and Aguirre. In 2018, Aguirre was found guilty of first-degree murder with a special circumstance of intentional murder by torture. He remained stone-faced throughout the trial, even when he was sentenced to death after a lengthy deliberation. He is currently on death row in the San Quentin State Prison.
Seeing what happened to her boyfriend at trial, Pearl chose to plead guilty to first-degree murder as part of a deal that would send her to prison without the possibility of parole, but would spare her the death penalty. Gabriel's mother is currently serving her life sentence in Chowchilla State Women’s Prison.
At their sentencing hearing in 2018, presiding Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli didn't mince words, telling the couple that he had never seen such a gruesome case before in his long tenure on the bench.
"I hope you think about the pain you caused this child and that it tortures you,” Lomeli is shown telling Aguirre and Pearl in the documentary. “I rarely say that.”