A Palmdale man was convicted Wednesday of the torture- killing of his girlfriend's 8-year-old son, whose short life and agonizing death also led to a murder charge against his mother and criminal counts against social workers accused of ignoring his plight.
Isauro Aguirre, 37, was convicted of first-degree murder and faces a possible death sentence for the killing of Gabriel Fernandez, who was routinely beaten, shot with a BB gun, forced to eat cat feces and sleep while gagged and bound inside a small cabinet.
Along with convicting Aguirre of murder, the seven-woman, five-man jury found true a special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture. The jury deliberated for about 5 1/2 hours over two days before reaching its verdict late Wednesday morning.
Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli ordered jurors to return to the downtown Los Angeles courtroom Nov. 27 for the start of the penalty phase of Aguirre's trial, in which they will be asked to recommend whether Aguirre should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Gabriel's mother, 34-year-old Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, is still awaiting trial for the boy's May 2013 death. Prosecutors are also seeking the death penalty for her.
Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami embraced the boy's biological father in court after the verdict. Hatami told reporters later that what the two discussed was "private," saying, "I'm a dad and he's a dad."
"Some justice, I think, has been served by this verdict, and maybe some closure can be felt by Gabriel's family as far as at least they feel that the system ... is trying to make some things right, and maybe this is a small part of that, maybe," said Hatami, who described himself as a "survivor" of child abuse at age 4 and 5.
Amanda Nevarez -- who created the Facebook page Gabriel's Justice that has been liked by nearly 80,000 people -- said it was "quite emotional" to hear the jury's verdict.
"There are certain words we can use for this guy like murderer now, convicted murderer, so I think that makes a big improvement in what's going on in this case," she said. "It's a hard feeling because it's very emotional because it's not quite a win because the win would have been Gabriel still alive. ... We no longer have to worry about this particular person out on the streets doing this to another child."
One of Aguirre's attorneys, Michael Sklar, acknowledged during the trial that Aguirre killed the boy, but told jurors Monday in his closing argument the defendant "acted in a rage of anger followed by an explosion of violence" and not with the deliberation and premeditation required for first-degree murder.
He argued that jurors should convict his client of the lesser count of second-degree murder. Hatami called Aguirre an "evil" man who "liked torturing" the boy and did so systematically in the months leading up to the child's death. Aguirre hated Gabriel because he thought the boy was gay, according to the prosecutor, who began his closing argument by displaying a photo of Gabriel's battered body lying on an autopsy table -- covered in injuries head to toe -- as evidence of Aguirre's intent to kill the boy.
"You can't believe a person in our society would intentionally murder a child," Hatami said, comparing the abuse to that suffered by a prisoner of war. "Believe it, because it happened. This was intentional murder by torture," he told the jury. "Do not go back in the jury room and make excuses for the defendant ... this had nothing to do with drugs ... this had nothing to do with mental health issues."
Hatami -- who is handling the case with colleague Scott Yang -- said in the months leading up to the boy's death, 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 painted a picture of Aguirre sleeping in a comfortable bed night after night while, in the same room, Gabriel 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.
"To force a child to eat cat litter and cat feces, more than once, how does somebody do that?" Hatami asked, referring to testimony by Gabriel's older brother.
He alleged that the 6-foot-2, 270-pound defendant punched and kicked Gabriel hard enough to dent the walls of the family's apartment and leave the boy unconscious, then -- with help from the boy's mother -- hid some of the child's bloody clothing and moved a picture to cover up one of the biggest indentations before calling 911.
The defense contended that Aguirre never meant to kill the child, but Hatami sought to undercut that claim, telling jurors in his summation of the case that Aguirre hated the boy.
The couple only took him from his maternal grandparents so that they could collect welfare payments for his care, the prosecutor said.
"Gabriel was a gentler boy, a sweeter boy (than his brother) and the defendant hated him because of that ... he believed Gabriel was gay," Hatami said. "This stressful situation and rage thing is a lie ... because it's not supported by the evidence. The defendant actually liked torturing Gabriel. He got off on it ... he is a murderer and he is a torturer."
Sklar acknowledged "unspeakable acts of abuse over a period of time" by his client, but urged the panel as a matter of law to focus only on the evening of May 22, 2013, when Gabriel endured the beating that caused his death.
Aguirre was angry because Gabriel had asked his mother to leave Aguirre and then denied saying so, calling his mother a liar in front of Aguirre, the defense attorney said.
"Isauro exploded in a rage of anger" and later "described his anger as a 20 on a scale of 10" to a detective, Sklar said. "He was completely out of control."
But once his client realized Gabriel was unconscious, "he immediately took steps to begin to revive him," the defense attorney said, telling jurors that Aguirre had run cold water over the boy while "repeatedly hollering his name" and told the boy's mother to call 911 for help. He said his client realized that a call to 911 would result in his arrest, and described Aguirre's subsequent statements to investigators as "genuine remorse" for what he had done rather than expressions of self-pity for his own predicament.
Aguirre's attorney also asked jurors why the last attack on the child occurred while two of his siblings -- who testified during Aguirre's trial -- were home and why the boy's body was not disposed of in an effort to conceal what had happened to him if his client intended to kill the boy.
The attorney also alleged that Gabriel's mother was the one who hit the boy with a belt, shot him with a BB gun and was responsible for much of the abuse prior to his death. Los Angeles County Fire Department personnel went to the family's home in the 200 block of East Avenue Q-10 in Palmdale 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. Aguirre and the boy's mother 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 were charged last year with one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying public records in connection with the case.