Expressing horror at the depravity and inaction that allowed a 2-year-old Oxnard girl to be beaten, bitten and slowly tortured to death, a Ventura County judge handed down harsh sentences Friday to the girl’s young parents.
Rogelio Hernandez, 20, was sentenced to life in prison for killing his daughter, Joselin. His 19-year-old wife, Gabriela, who did not stop the beatings and burns, was sentenced to 15 years to life.
“I have been in court with literally scores of people--some brutal, sadistic killers,” said Superior Court Judge James P. Cloninger before sentencing Rogelio Hernandez. “But none of them were treated by society as Joselin was treated by her father.”
His words to Gabriela Hernandez were no less harsh.
“There is no question Gabriela could have stopped this by simply sitting someone down and saying, ‘This is what happened,’ ” Cloninger said.
But she never did, despite the intervention of social workers and doctors.
And so, on June 22, 1996, Joselin died as a result of blunt force blows to her abdomen, possibly as a result of someone punching or kicking her.
An autopsy showed that at the time of her death she had burns, bites, broken bones and bruises in various stages of healing.
The case turned a spotlight on how the county’s Public Social Services Agency handles child-abuse cases and prompted an ongoing investigation by the agency’s new chief.
Critics said social workers, who removed Joselin from her parents’ care only to give her back three months before her death, ignored warning signs that might have saved the toddler’s life.
A jury, after an emotional six-week trial, convicted Rogelio Hernandez of first-degree murder and torture, and his wife of second-degree murder.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Dee Corona, expressing relief that the draining trial was over, called the sentences appropriate.
Attorneys for the young couple, however, pledged to appeal the case--especially the judge’s decision to try the pair together.
Joselin first came to the attention of authorities in 1994 when she was 6 weeks old and hospitalized with six fractured ribs, broken legs, and burns to her hands and feet. She was also malnourished and dehydrated.
The county’s Child Protective Services workers removed the child from her parents’ care and placed her with her maternal grandparents. But when her grandmother died in March 1996, Joselin was returned to her parents.
Within three months she was dead.
Wearing his jailhouse blues, his feet shackled, Rogelio Hernandez sat staring straight ahead as his sentence was read, blinking his eyes rapidly, then shutting them. He swallowed twice.
Gabriela Hernandez, who sobbed when the guilty verdict was read six weeks ago, held her chin up Friday as the judge read her sentence.
She asked only that she be given a picture of Joselin to take to prison with her. The judge agreed to allow her a copy of a photo used as evidence.
When tears began to roll down her face, she wiped them once with a tissue, then slumped forward slightly.
It had been an exhausting morning.
Shortly before the judge arrived in the courtroom at 8:30 a.m., Rogelio Hernandez’s godmother, Berta Gonzales, called reporters into the hallway.
“I know how the baby died,” she announced, speaking very quickly. “The baby was under the custody of the director of child protection agency. . . . The court is protecting child-protection services.”
But she could not say how Joselin had been injured, if not by Rogelio.
“The baby was a little toy for everyone. The court too,” she continued, growing hysterical. “Gabriela and him, they were just little kids, raising kids.”
Attorneys for both Rogelio and Gabriela Hernandez submitted motions for new trials, both of which were denied.
Then, rehashing some of the most gruesome details of the trial, prosecutor Corona asked the judge to give both parents the maximum sentence.
“Children are precious gifts,” Corona said. “They are miracles. It’s a joy to watch your children grow, learn to crawl, learn to walk and to experience the world. Joselin was denied all of this with her mother and father.
“Just the fact that she existed was enough to cause Rogelio to beat her, yank her and burn her. Joselin did nothing to deserve any of this.”
As for Gabriela Hernandez, Corona said, she knew what was going on. But she allowed her child to be slowly tortured to death, she said.
At that point Gonzales, who had been sitting quietly next to Rogelio Hernandez’s father, stood up.
“May I say something?” Gonzales called out to the judge. “I know how the baby died.”
The judge said, “No,” but she stood and walked toward the dais, still talking.
“Please escort the lady from the court,” Cloninger said. Several bailiffs converged on her and escorted her out.
Rogelio Hernandez received 25 years to life for first-degree murder, life for torture, and an additional 16 years and four months for multiple counts of child abuse.
He will not be eligible for parole for at least 42 years.
In Gabriela Hernandez’s case, Corona argued for the maximum sentence because the mother was Joselin’s “sole hope.”
“People were knocking on her door to help her,” Corona told the judge. “She took advantage of none of these . . . to come to the aid of her daughter.”
Gabriela Hernandez’s attorney, William Maxwell, argued that his client was neglected and abused as a child.
Trying to shift some of the blame back to the public agencies, he said Gabriela Hernandez was not Joselin’s sole hope.
“She was the one, more consistently than anyone else, who continued to try to take the child to doctors,” he said. “What’s wrong is to treat her as if she is morally depraved . . . that she has a malignant heart. There is so much evidence in this case that says that is not true.”
Maxwell asked the judge to take into consideration that Gabriela Hernandez has lost two children: Joselin, who is dead, and her 3-year-old son, who has been placed in foster care.
Cloninger was blunt in his response.
“She hasn’t lost two children,” he said. “She killed one and lost the other. And it seems the reason she did it was not a pretty one. She was getting what she needed, so it was acceptable. It was not unacceptable enough for her to lift a hand to make it end.”
Gabriela Hernandez will be eligible for parole in about 13 years.
Attorneys for the couple said they will appeal.
Deputy Public Defender Douglas Daily said he will argue it was an error to conduct the trials jointly.
During the trial, Daily several times asked the judge to separate the cases.
Daily said the joint trial damaged his client’s case. Maxwell has refused to speculate on whether a separate trial for his client would have made a difference.