By Diana Martinez, Editor The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol and City News Service
After years of being in limbo, a jury recommended that Isauro Aguirre be put to death for the torture-murder of Gabriel Fernandez, his girlfriend’s 8-year-old son, who was repeatedly shot with a BB gun, beaten and forced to sleep in a small cabinet with his hands and feet bound and his mouth gagged.
As the verdict was read Wednesday, Dec. 13, Aguirre didn’t react. He sat motionless, he didn’t budge a muscle.
The seven-woman, five-man jury deliberated for about seven hours over three days before recommending that Isauro Aguirre, 37, be put to death for the May 2013 killing of Gabriel Fernandez. The boy’s mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, 34, is awaiting trial and also faces a possible death sentence.
Sentencing for Aguirre, a former security guard, was set for March 8.
Sylmar resident Emily Carranza, a cousin of Gabriel, said she has been “praying for this verdict” and hearing the news gives her some “relief.”
Carranza, after learning of her family member’s death, started the website “Gabriel’s Justice,” and held news conferences with family members, longtime friend Amanda Navarez and other supporters who kept the case in public view.
Carranza said she was grateful for Navarez, who was at the courthouse every day and others who offered support. Navarez provided daily video updates following each day’s court proceeding to those that followed their website.
Carranza told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that this has been a long process. Seeing the heinous images of Gabriel, who was starved and hit so hard that the skin on his face and jaw separated from his face, has taken its toll on her family and all those who became connected to this case.
The images haunted those in the courtroom.
“After 4 1/2 long years some justice has been served today,” said Carranza. “Hearing that Aguirre was sentenced to death was victory in my eyes. It won’t bring Gabriel back, but I know Aguirre will never be able to harm another child.
“This is a very emotional time for me, for the friends and family who stuck by this whole time,” Carranza continued. “I want to Thank D.A. Jonathan Hatami and his team for the endless efforts and sleepless nights for a job well done — to bring this child murderer to justice. May Aguirre reflect on the lives he affected, not just on my family, but his own.”
Carranza said that she considered this “Phase 1,” and next will be “Phase 2” when Gabriel’s mother stands trial.
The Fernandez family is from the Northeast San Fernando Valley. Gabriel lived with his grandparents in San Fernando and Pacoima before the family moved to the Palmdale area, and his mother took him and refused to return him.
Family members have said that she wanted the welfare money that having the child would give her.
Gabriel’s grandmother died not long after learning that Gabriel had died. While she was already in poor health, friends said she died of a “broken heart.”
Gabriel’s father broke down on the witness stand during the Aguirre trial recalling telling Gabriel that he would be coming back to live with them after the Department of Children’s Services investigated the case, but that never came to pass.
The jury’s recommendation this week came shortly after the panel heard a read-back of testimony by William Adams, a consultant who spent more than 26 years working for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He was defense’s final witness.
In his testimony last Thursday, Adams told the jury he believed Aguirre was “more likely to be prey than predator” among the state prison population if he was sentenced to life without parole. But he acknowledged under questioning by the prosecutor that it was his personal opinion the defendant had committed an “evil” act.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli rejected the jury’s request for a transcript of the attorneys’ closing arguments or for a slide shown by Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami during his closing argument, noting that “nothing that the attorneys say is evidence.”
The judge offered jurors the chance to hear another 30-minute summation of their case from attorneys on both sides, but the jury passed on the offer.
In a note submitted late Monday, the jury asked what the outcome of the case would be if the panel is unable to reach a unanimous verdict. At a brief hearing Tuesday, the judge told the panel that the question was “a little bit premature,” noting that jurors had not spent very much time discussing the case.
Los Angeles County Fire Department personnel went to the family’s home in the 200 block of East Avenue Q-10 in Palmdale on May 22, 2013, in response to a call that Gabriel was not breathing. He was declared brain-dead that day and taken off life support two days later.
In addition to convicting Aguirre of murder, jurors found true the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture, making him eligible for capital punishment.
In his closing argument Monday, Hatami told jurors the death penalty is the “only appropriate and just punishment,” while one of Aguirre’s attorneys, John Alan, pleaded for mercy for his client.
The prosecutor began his closing argument in the penalty phase by showing the jury autopsy photos of Gabriel’s “head-to-toe” injuries, which a doctor, a nurse, a social worker, a sheriff’s detective and others working with child abuse victims had testified were the worst they had ever seen.
“There is nothing worse in our society than a grown man murdering and torturing an innocent little boy,” Hatami told the panel. Then he set a large photo of the boy, with a small smile on his face, on an easel in front of the jury box.
The prosecutor reminded jurors of testimony that the boy was forced to sleep in a small wooden cabinet with his hands tied behind his back and his ankles handcuffed.
“Stuffed in that box … cold, afraid, lonely, hungry, probably hard to breathe,” the prosecutor said. The boy “defecated and urinated in that box” and “even was force-fed his own vomit. The defendant broke Gabriel’s spirit.”
Aguirre “beat Gabriel to death with his fists and his hands … in front of Gabriel’s own brother and sister. What type of man would do that?”
Hatami asked. “Not a man with any goodness in him.”
The prosecutor reminded jurors that Gabriel’s “emaciated little body had nine metal BBs in it … a lacerated liver, a fractured skull, whip marks on his back … unimaginable pain and suffering at the hands of the defendant.
“What type of man would punch a child 10 times in the face? Not a man with any goodness in him,” Hatami said.
“Death was likely a merciful end to Gabriel’s pain and suffering,” the prosecutor said before asking jurors to hold Aguirre accountable.
Aguirre’s attorney told jurors it is up to them to determine if
Aguirre will spend his life “behind concrete walls and steel bars in prison until he departs this Earth in God’s time” or dies” prematurely at the hands of man.”
His client had never been convicted of any other crime and had no prior history of violence, Alan said.
“The death penalty is not required for even the most heinous crime, the defense attorney said, reminding jurors that they were each being asked to make “a personal, moral decision.”
The defense attorney recalled testimony from Aguirre’s co-workers about his “compassion, empathy, gentleness, kindness, respectfulness and patience” in dealing with elderly patients at an assisted-living facility in Woodland Hills.
“I don’t think we’ll ever truly understand how that person … gentle, kind, patient, respectful … came to commit this horrific crime,” Alan said. “I believe that the answer, at least in part, lies where Isauro’s life intersected with Pearl’s.”
Pearl Fernandez was “violent, abusive and neglected her children even before she met Isauro. Even her own family considered her a danger to her children,” the defense attorney said.
Aguirre and Fernandez have been jailed without bail since being
charged in May 2013 with the boy’s death. The two were subsequently indicted by a Los Angeles County grand jury.
Two former Los Angeles County social workers — Stefanie Rodriguez and Patricia Clement — and supervisors Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt are awaiting trial on one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying public records involving the boy.