The murder trial is ongoing in the case against a man accused of torturing and murdering the 8-year-old son of his girlfriend, whom he believed was gay.
Los Angeles County prosecutors argue Gabriel Fernandez was the victim of an eight-month-long campaign of terror by his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, which ended with the boy’s death in May 2013.
Both Fernandez and Aguirre will be tried separately and each faces the death penalty, NBC Los Angeles reports.
The allegations are horrifying, and the case has led to charges against social workers and disciplinary measures against sheriff’s deputies investigating the abuse claims.
Here are six things to know about the case:
1. Gabriel Suffered ‘Unspeakable’ Abuse for 8 Months
Aguirre’s own attorney, John Alan, admitted in his opening statement that his client committed of “unspeakable acts of abuse” against Gabriel prior to “exploding into a rage of anger” that caused his death, according to NBC Los Angeles.
In court papers filed last year, Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami wrote of the alleged “eight months of torture and abuse” Gabriel suffered, according to CBS News.
Hatami added that Gabriel was allegedly “withheld from school by [Fernandez and Aguirre] for the last three weeks before he was murdered.”
2. His Mom and Her Boyfriend Allegedly ‘Torture[d] Gabriel to Death’
Hatami, in his opening statement, described the alleged “systematic torture of a helpless and innocent child,” according to the Los Angeles Daily News.
The couple was “conspiring together to deceive everyone in order to torture Gabriel to death,” he alleged.
Hatami said Gabriel moved in with his mother and Aguirre in 2012 after living with his grandparents. Hatami showed jurors a photo of Gabriel at 7 years old, when he lived with his grandparents, describing him as a “happy and healthy” child.
Then he showed jurors a photo of Gabriel lying in a hospital bed and said, “After eight months of living with the defendant … his body was battered. The evidence will show he was beaten, burned, bruised,” he said.
According to news reports, the evidence and testimony in Aguirre’s trial has left both court observers and jurors stunned — sometimes gasping or sobbing at what they learned.
Gabriel’s 16-year-old brother, Ezequiel, testified in horrific detail about the abuse the boy suffered at the hands of Aguirre.
According to Ezequiel’s testimony, Gabriel was beaten daily and was forced to eat cat feces and cat litter. Ezequiel also told the jury that his brother suffered regular beatings, allegedly at the hands of Aguirre and his mother, and was gagged and bound without food or water for hours in a small, locked cabinet he called the “box.”
The couple would allegedly laugh during the beatings, Ezequiel testified.
He also testified that Aguirre and his mother would allegedly force Gabriel to eat rotten food — and when he threw it up, they would make him eat his own vomit.
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“My mom and her boyfriend made Gabriel eat spoiled stuff or expired stuff,” Ezequiel testified. “One thing I remember is expired spinach. He threw it up, and they made him eat it off the table.”
When paramedics were called to his home on May 22, 2013, Gabriel was found naked, with a cracked skull, shattered ribs, severe burns and BB pellets buried in his body, according to the L.A. Times.
He was declared brain-dead and taken off life support two days later.
3. Prosecutors Allege Aguirre Abused Gabriel Because He Believed The Boy Was Gay
“This wasn’t about drugs. This wasn’t about mental health issues,” Hatami said during his opening statement. Rather, he alleged, Aguirre abused Gabriel “because he didn’t like him … he believed Gabriel was gay and to him, that was a bad thing … he did it out of hatred of a little boy.”
The Los Angeles Times reported in 2014 that according to grand jury testimony, Gabriel’s siblings alleged that Aguirre and Fernandez called Gabriel gay, punished him for playing with dolls and made him wear girl’s clothing to school.
4. The Boyfriend’s Attorney Admits His Client is ‘Guilty of Murder’ — But Denies Torture
Alan, Aguirre’s attorney, admitted his client is “guilty of murder” but said he should not face the special circumstance allegation of torture included in his murder charge.
However, Alan also said Aguirre “never intended for Gabriel to die.”
Hatami said that when he was arrested, Aguirre stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 270 pounds, and Gabriel was 4 foot 1 inches tall and weighed 59 pounds. Aguirre, said Hatami, was “nothing more than a bully.’
5. The Case Has Prompted Charges Against Social Workers and Disciplinary Measures Against Police Officers
Gabriel’s death prompted criminal charges against some of the social workers who were involved in the boy’s care after they were allegedly negligent.
Arrest warrants were issued March 28 against Stefanie Rodriguez, 30, Patricia Clement, 65, Kevin Bom, 36, and Gregory Merritt, 60. All four were fired last year following an internal investigation into Gabriel’s death. After challenging his dismissal, Merritt had been reinstated to his position as of April, records indicate.
All of the accused social workers have reportedly pleaded not guilty.
District Attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison told PEOPLE it is very unusual for a social worker to face criminal charges in death of a child they’d been charged with supervising, adding that this is the first case of its kind to be prosecuted in Los Angeles County.
A subsequent L.A. Times investigation found that, according to court documents, multiple L.A. sheriff’s deputies were also disciplined following Gabriel’s death. The paper reported earlier this year that “deputies visited Gabriel’s home multiple times … [but] found no signs of abuse and did not file paperwork that would have led specially trained detectives to do more investigating.”
6. Gabriel’s Teacher Said He Told Her ‘My Mom Makes Me Bleed’
In court, Jennifer Garcia, who was Gabriel’s first-grade teacher, took the witness stand and told the court the boy had once confided in her, allegedly telling her, “Sometimes, my mom makes me bleed,” reports NBC Los Angeles.
Gabriel’s teacher said it was obvious to her — as well as other school staffers — the boy was allegedly living in an abusive home. ABC reports Garcia testified that Gabriel was absent often, and frequently came into class with bruises.
Garcia testified that in late 2012, Gabriel allegedly told her his mother had beaten him with a belt that had a metal buckle. She called California’s Department of Children and Family Services, NBC reports. Jurors were played a recording of the call that initiated the agency’s investigation into the alleged abuse.
“‘Sometimes, my mom makes me bleed’,” Garcia quoted the boy as telling her. “And I say, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Well, on my bottom.’”
NBC reports that Garcia also told the court she once addressed with Gabriel about bruises she noticed on his face. Initially, he lied, telling her he had had a bad fall. When pressed, the boy allegedly told her his mother had fired a BB gun at his face.
“I asked him, ‘Why did you lie? Why didn’t you tell me?’ And he said, ‘Because when I tell you, and that lady comes, I get hurt worse,’” Garcia said, adding it was apparent the child was referring to a social worker.