A 37-year-old man accused of torturing and beating his girlfriend's 8-year-old son to death in a case that prompted far-reaching reforms of the county's child welfare system was convicted Wednesday of first-degree murder.
Jurors deliberated for about six hours before returning the verdict against Isauro Aguirre, also finding true a special allegation that the murder was committed with the infliction of torture.
The jury must next determine whether Aguirre should be sentenced to death for the May 2013 death of Gabriel Fernandez, who was found unconscious with a cracked skull, three broken ribs and BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin when paramedics reached him at his Palmdale home. He was declared brain-dead and taken off life support two days later.
Prosecutors will begin presenting evidence in the penalty phase of the trial on Nov. 27.
The boy's mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, is facing a separate trial. She has pleaded not guilty to murder.
Following the verdict, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami embraced Gabriel's father. In a press conference, the prosecutor grew emotional recounting the moment.
"I'm a dad and, you know, he's a dad," Hatami said, wiping away tears in his eyes. "It's just two dads, and two humans in the community, just sharing the fact that maybe there was some justice."
The prosecutor told jurors in closing arguments this week that the 6-foot-2, 270-pound Aguirre clearly enjoyed torturing the small boy and had systematically brutalized him in the months leading to his death, forcing him to eat cat litter and feces and making him sleep bound and gagged in a small cabinet overnight.
Hatami said Aguirre couldn't blame either drugs or mental health problems for his actions, and he added that Aguirre hated Gabriel because he suspected the boy was gay.
"This was intentional murder by torture," Hatami told jurors.
Aguirre took steps to cover up evidence of the ongoing abuse at the home before calling 911 to report that Gabriel had stopped breathing, the prosecutor said.
The boy's horrific 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 the killing, and prosecutors said in court papers that some of the deputies were later disciplined in connection with Gabriel's death.
Hatami told jurors that they now had the chance to do right by the boy after so many had failed him.
"The social workers had a chance. The school officials had a chance. The deputies had a chance," he said. "Now it's up to you…. What are you going to do?"
Aguirre's defense attorney asked the jury to set aside their "complete horror" at what was done to the boy and recognize that his client never intended to kill Gabriel. He argued that because Aguirre brutalized the boy during a fit of rage, he was guilty of second-degree, not first-degree, murder.
"He was completely out of control," said Deputy Public Defender Michael Sklar.
The attorney said that it was the boy's mother who was responsible for much of the abuse, including shooting him with a BB gun and hitting him with a belt, and that Aguirre had attempted to perform CPR to revive Gabriel before paramedics arrived.
Sklar said Aguirre was himself a victim of abuse at the hands of his own mother, who disciplined him with cords and by burning him with cigarettes. He played for jurors the man's tearful interview with sheriff's deputies.
In his emotional news conference after the verdict, Hatami described himself as a survivor of child abuse when he was 4 and 5 years old.
"I'm involved in child abuse cases because I'm passionate about those cases, because I believe children need somebody to fight for them," the prosecutor said. "And I think that being a victim of child abuse, you feel powerless and no one's there to help you. People need to fight for children and others who can't fight for themselves."
Gabriel's 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.
Sheriff's Det. Tim O'Quinn said there also had been changes within the Sheriff's Department as a result of the case and others like it. O'Quinn said that reports taken by patrol deputies are more extensive now and that there is better handling and tracking of those reports.
"The ultimate goal is that no child case should ever fall through any crack whatsoever," O'Quinn said. "And I think we've seen some extremely good changes as a result."
Amanda Nevarez, a friend of a cousin of Gabriel's, praised the prosecutor after the verdict.
"It's a hard feeling, because it's very emotional, because it's not quite a win," she said. "The win would have been Gabriel still alive, but … we no longer have to worry about this particular person out on the streets doing this to another child."
City News Service contributed to this report.
4:00 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from the prosecutor and a sheriff's homicide detective.
2:30 p.m.: This article was updated with when the penalty phase of the trial will begin.