Closing arguments wrap up in trial of Palmdale man charged in 8-year-old boy's death

- A prosecutor, summing up the case on Monday against a Palmdale resident charged in the torture-murder of his girlfriend's 8-year-old son, called the defendant an "evil" man who "liked torturing" the youngster and systematically did so in the months leading up to the child's death.

An attorney for Isauro Aguirre acknowledged that his client murdered Gabriel Fernandez in May 2013, but told jurors that the 37-year-old defendant "acted in a rage of anger followed by an explosion of violence" contrary to the deliberation and premeditation required for a verdict of first-degree murder.

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Aguirre, who worked as a security guard, also faces a special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against him and his 34-year-old girlfriend, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, who will be tried separately for her son's killing.

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Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami began his closing argument by showing a photo of Gabriel's battered body lying on an autopsy table -- covered in head-to-toe injuries -- as evidence of Aguirre's intent to kill the boy.

"You can't believe a person in our society would intentionally murder a child," Hatami said, comparing the abuse to that suffered by a prisoner of war.

"Believe it, because it happened. This was intentional murder by torture," he told the jury. "Do not go back in the jury room and make excuses or the defendant ... this had nothing to do with drugs ... this had nothing to do with mental health issues."

Hatami said in the months leading up to the boy's death, he was "being starved and punched and kicked and abused and beaten ... he was belittled, bullied and called gay. His teeth were knocked out. He was tied up every night in a box ... Gabriel was dying."

The prosecutor said Aguirre is one of a small group of people who are "just bad ... There is evil in this room, and it is right over there." 

He painted a picture of Aguirre sleeping in a comfortable bed night after night while, in the same room, Gabriel was bound and gagged inside a small cabinet with a "sock in his mouth, a shoelace (tying) up his hands, a bandanna over his face" and his ankles handcuffed.

"To force a child to eat cat litter and cat feces, more than once, how does somebody do that?" Hatami asked.

He alleged that the 6 foot, 2 inch, 270-pound defendant punched and kicked Gabriel hard enough to dent the walls of the family's apartment and leave the 8-year-old unconscious, then -- with help from the boy's mother -- hid some of the child's bloody clothing and moved a picture to cover up one of
the biggest indentations before calling 911.

"There's no evidence that he was going to save Gabriel," Hatami said, telling jurors that the defendant lied to the 911 dispatcher and paramedics who arrived on the scene.

The defense contends that Aguirre never meant to kill the child, but Hatami sought to undercut that claim, telling jurors in his summation of the case that Aguirre hated the boy. The couple only took him from his maternal grandparents so that they could collect welfare payments for his care, the
prosecutor said.

"Gabriel was a gentler boy, a sweeter boy (than his brother) and the defendant hated him because of that ... he believed Gabriel was gay," Hatami said. "This stressful situation and rage thing is a lie ... because it's not supported by the evidence. The defendant actually liked torturing Gabriel. He
got off on it ... he is a murderer and he is a torturer."

Hatami recalled testimony about a medical excuse to explain Gabriel's absence from school, which was allegedly forged by Aguirre and Fernandez. The prosecutor said that documentation, along with the couple later telling the school that the boy had moved to Texas, was evidence of their sophistication and premeditation.

He said text messages between the pair in the month the boy was beaten to death included one from Aguirre telling Fernandez: "stop giving him attention (sic) ... "I told u I'll handle him." Two days later, according to Hatami, Aguirre sent a text saying he was "looking at murder cases."

Hatami showed jurors an earlier picture of Gabriel, sitting next to his brother with a big smile on his face.  "The defendant took everything from him," the prosecutors told jurors, urging them to "Hold him responsible. It ends here. It ends now."

Defense attorney Michael Sklar began his summation by telling jurors that "the evidence, in this case, requires you to find (Aguirre) guilty of (second-degree) murder, not first-degree murder.

"I recognize how difficult it will be to put aside your complete horror," he said while asking the panel to consider the evidence "clearly, conscientiously and dispassionately."

Sklar acknowledged "unspeakable acts of abuse over a period of time" by his client, but urged the panel as a matter of law to focus only on the evening of May 22, 2013, when Aguirre and Fernandez allegedly gave Gabriel the beating that caused his death.

Aguirre was angry because Gabriel had asked his mother to leave Aguirre and then denied saying so, calling his mother a liar in front of Aguirre, the defense attorney said. "Isauro exploded in a rage of anger" and later "described his anger as a 20 on a scale of 10" to a detective," Sklar said. "He was completely out of control."

Sklar cited testimony by Gabriel's siblings as corroboration, recalling that one of them said Aguirre, who the kids called Tony, became "really, really, really mad."

Once his client realized Gabriel was unconscious, "he immediately took steps to begin to revive him," the defense attorney said. Sklar recalled Gabriel's brother testifying that "Tony began CPR before somebody on the phone told him to, and he continued until paramedics arrived," arguing that "an attempt to save is contrary to an intent to kill."

Sklar said his client did not match the portrait of an evil man outlined by the prosecution, telling the jury that Aguirre once worked in a retirement home caring for dependent elderly residents, a job requiring "considerable patience and compassion."

He had no prior history of abuse, other than his own, according to Sklar. "His own mother disciplined him with cords and burned him with cigarettes," the attorney said. It was Pearl who had "a long history of volatility, violence, abuse, and neglect toward her children," Sklar said. 

He alleged that Gabriel's mother was the one who hit the boy with a belt, shot him with a BB gun, forced him to eat cat feces and was responsible for much of the abuse prior to his death.

Sklar urged jurors to listen again to the 911 call, rather than relying on any attorney's recollections and played a part of Aguirre's confession once more for the panel. "(It) demonstrates Isauro's tears are borne of genuine remorse ... and are not expressions of self-pity for his own predicament," Sklar said.

The defense attorney said the prosecution's basis for first-degree murder requires the jury to "accept that Gabriel was at death's door" before the beating and to see that night as "the culmination of a systematic plan ... rather than a rash act," claims Sklar said are "not supported by the evidence."

And it was Pearl Fernandez, not Aguirre, who texted that she was watching "murder cases," Sklar said, calling the prosecution's implications "sinister."

"Does it seem likely that they would send (Gabriel) to school ... with obvious injuries ... if their plan was to slowly torture him to death?" Sklar asked. "He did not act with a cold, calculated decision to kill ... it was a rash act ... not deliberate and premeditated."

"We're not asking you not to punish Isauro Aguirre," the defense attorney said, but asking for "a verdict that serves the ends of justice. Follow the law down the path it takes you ... do what is right and just." 

In his rebuttal, Hatami said there were not just three people in the house on the night Gabriel was beaten, but four. "One was Gabriel," Hatami said. "There were hundreds of wounds on Gabriel and each one tells a story ... this wasn't one day. If this is second-degree murder, what is first-degree murder then?"

He declared it a case of first-degree murder and torture "beyond all doubt," then listed all those who he said had failed to help Gabriel. "The social workers had a chance. The school officials had a chance. The deputies had a chance," Hatami told the jury. "Now it's up to you ... What are you going to do? Justice for Gabriel."

Jurors will return tomorrow morning to begin deliberating. 

From reporter Phil Shuman:

You’re not human if you don’t recoil in horror at the Gabriel Fernandez case.  He’s the little boy who never made it past 8-years old. He was beaten to death by his mother’s live-in boyfriend, who is now on trial in a capital murder case. The details are chilling and even hearing about them is enough to make you sick. Let’s not recap them here.

The boyfriend, a 37-year-old one-time security guard, is looking at the death penalty. If convicted, which a lot of people figure would be too good for him. His attorney admits his client abused Gabriel horribly but insists no one ever meant to kill the 8-year-old. What did they think would happen? The mother, with two other kids who witnessed all this and testified, goes on trial later.

She may be just as guilty as him. Unspeakable. 

Los Angeles County Fire Department personnel were called to the family's home in the 200 block of East Avenue Q-10 in response to a call that Gabriel was not breathing. He was declared brain-dead that day, then taken off life support two days later.

Aguirre and the boy's mother have remained jailed without bail since being charged in May 2013 with the boy's death. The two were subsequently indicted by a Los Angeles County grand jury.

Two former Los Angeles County social workers -- Stefanie Rodriguez and Patricia Clement -- and supervisors Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt were charged last year with one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying public records in connection with the case.

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