The mother of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who died after suffering brutal beatings and starvation, prompting far-reaching reforms in Los Angeles County's child welfare system, pleaded guilty Thursday to first-degree murder.
In a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez admitted that the 2013 killing of her son Gabriel was intentional and involved the infliction of torture.
Her guilty plea avoided a trial, where prosecutors were expected to seek the death penalty. Fernandez's defense lawyers had opposed capital punishment, arguing that her low IQ made her ineligible for death row. A judge is scheduled to sentence her June 7 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Shackled at the waist and wearing a jail-issued smock, Fernandez, 34, spoke in a faint, muted voice on Thursday as she accepted the conditions of the plea agreement.
"You will never be paroled. You will never be released from prison," Deputy Dist. Atty. Jon Hatami told her. "Do you understand and agree to this?"
"Yes," said Fernandez as her lawyer, Deputy Alternate Public Defender Julia Dixon, comforted her.
"It brings relief," Gabriel's cousin, Emily Carranza, said after the brief court proceeding. "I know she's never going to be out, and I know she's never going to hurt another child."
Prosecutors said Fernandez's defense lawyers inquired about a guilty plea on Dec. 14, one day after jurors recommended that her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, be executed for his role in the boy's death. After two months of discussions, prosecutors agreed.
"The paths of justice are always different," Hatami said afterward, noting that most cases do not go to trial.
Without a trial, Carranza said, she and her family could avoid another painful review of the brutal abuse that Gabriel endured, including graphic photos and reports of the child's injuries.
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.
The death led to unprecedented criminal charges against L.A. County social workers who allowed Gabriel to remain at the home despite six investigations of the mother and numerous reports of the boy's injuries. Sheriff's deputies also visited the home multiple times in the months before his death, and prosecutors said in court papers that some of the deputies were later disciplined in connection with their response.
The killing galvanized calls for reforms in the way the county oversees abused and neglected children. A blue-ribbon commission set up by the county Board of Supervisors recommended "a fundamental transformation of the current child protection system." The board responded by setting up a new agency, the Office of Child Protection, which is charged with improving how children are treated.
Among those who reported Gabriel's abuse was Jennifer Garcia, a first-grade teacher at Summerwind Elementary School, who said he came to school with bruises and swollen eyes. She first became alarmed when he asked "a simple question," she said.
"He asked, 'Is it normal for your mom to hit you with a belt?'" she said Thursday. Five years later, Garcia said, the sight of Fernandez in the courtroom still made her angry.
"She got what she deserved. She deserves worse, but …. even if she got the death penalty, we don't execute," Garcia said.
During Aguirre's trial, Hatami, the prosecutor, 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.
Aguirre's defense portrayed Gabriel's mother as something of a mastermind of the boy's abuse, but prosecutors on Thursday disputed that argument.
"They both pointed fingers at each other," Hatami said. "The evidence showed, and our office believed, that they were both culpable."
Aguirre was convicted of first-degree murder on Nov. 1. A jury recommended the death penalty. He is scheduled to be sentenced March 8.
The fallout from Gabriel's murder has been felt well beyond the county. The decision by prosecutors to charge the four social workers with felony child abuse and falsifying public records sent a chill through the ranks of child protection workers nationwide.
Prosecutors alleged that the caseworkers ignored evidence of repeated abuse and minimized Gabriel's injuries.
At a court hearing for the social workers last 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." They have pleaded not guilty.
For Carranza, the years since her young cousin's death have been tough, filled with anger, guilt and pain. When reporters asked her how Gabriel, if he were alive, would look at his mother, she did not hesitate.
"He'd still love her," Carranza said. "Every child, no matter what, they're always going to love their parents."
6:20 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Jennifer Garcia, Gabriel Fernandez's first-grade teacher, and his cousin Emily Carranza.
1:35 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Deputy Dist. Atty. Jon Hatami and Gabriel Fernandez's cousin Emily Carranza.