Jurors on Wednesday voted for the death penalty for a man convicted of fatally torturing his girlfriend's young son — a savage slaying that led to sweeping reform within Los Angeles County's child-welfare system.
The verdict ended a murder trial in which jurors heard and saw disturbing evidence about how 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez suffered repeated abuse at the hands of Isauro Aguirre, 37, who stared ahead expressionless as he heard the pronouncement.
After a bailiff escorted Aguirre from the courtroom, the jury forewoman read aloud from a public statement written by the panel, which had deliberated for about seven hours over three days.
"We were plucked out of our everyday lives and brought together to serve," she said. "We came together to bring justice for Gabriel."
When paramedics arrived at the boy's Palmdale home on May 22, 2013, Gabriel was unconscious and had a cracked skull, broken ribs, burned and bruised skin, missing teeth and BB pellets lodged in his groin. He died two days later after being removed from life support.
During closing arguments in the penalty phase of Aguirre's trial, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami told jurors that in the months leading up to the boy's death, the defendant had reveled in his brutalization, forcing Gabriel to eat cat feces and his own vomit. The boy slept in a small cabinet, the prosecutor said, with his ankles handcuffed, his hands bound and his mouth gagged with a sock.
"No human with a heart and soul could do that to an innocent little boy," Hatami told jurors, arguing that Aguirre hated the boy because he suspected he was gay.
As the prosecutor detailed the abuse — the boy was punched in the face with such force, he said, that skin was missing from his chin and nose — two jurors cried softly and several closed their eyes.
Hatami asked the jurors to "show the defendant the exact same mercy he showed Gabriel."
Deputy Public Defender John Alan also spoke of mercy, asking jurors to sentence his client to life in prison without parole, instead of death.
"Mercy isn't something that's ever earned," he said. "It's something that is freely granted."
Alan reminded jurors that during the trial, some of Aguirre's family members and co-workers at a retirement home, where he worked as a caregiver for elderly people, had testified that they hoped his life would be spared as they knew him to be "gentle, kind, patient, respectful." A juror shook her head.
The defense attorney said even the lesser sentence of life in prison was "severe" and terrified his client, adding that Aguirre likely has a learning disability.
Last month, during closing arguments in the guilt phase of Aguirre's trial, his other attorney, Deputy Public Defender Michael Sklar, said although his client "was completely out of control," he hadn't tried to kill the boy. Aguirre had acted in a burst of rage, the attorney argued, and therefore was guilty of second-degree murder, but not a higher charge.
Aguirre was convicted of first-degree murder on Nov. 15 and jurors also found true the allegation that the murder was committed using torture.
After the penalty was read Wednesday, the prosecutor appeared misty-eyed and held a tissue in his hand. Nearby, Gabriel's father sat solemnly, staring at the floor. As he walked out of the courtroom, he locked eyes with a sheriff's detective who helped investigate the case. "Thank you," he whispered. The detective nodded, patting him on the back.
Outside of the courthouse, a juror, who asked to be identified only as a 25-year-old who works in social media, said even a death sentence didn't seem like "enough justice." Throughout the trial, she said, she woke up each morning with Gabriel on her mind — he was there, too, as she fell asleep each night. The photographs of his small, battered body — the bruises and blood on his neck — will stay with her forever, she said.
"It's heartbreaking," she said.
Gabriel's death led as well to criminal charges against L.A. County social workers, who left the boy in the home with his mom and her boyfriend despite six investigations into abuse allegations involving his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, who is also charged with murder.
At a court hearing for the social workers earlier in the year, a judge said that their actions amounted to criminal negligence, adding that in the months before the boy's death "red flags were everywhere."
Sheriff's deputies also visited the home multiple times in the months before the killing and prosecutors noted in court papers that some of the deputies were later disciplined in connection with Gabriel's death.
Aguirre is scheduled to be sentenced on March 8.
For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber
6:00 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from the hearing, as well as comments from a juror.