Palmdale man found guilty of first degree murder in child torture-death case

A Palmdale man was convicted of first-degree murder today for the torture-killing of his girlfriend's 8-year-old son, whose agony-filled life shocked the community and led to criminal charges against social workers accused of ignoring his plight.

Isauro Aguirre, 37, faces a possible death sentence for the killing of Gabriel Fernandez, who was routinely beaten, shot with a BB gun, fed cat feces and forced to sleep while gagged and bound inside a small cabinet. In addition to convicting Aguirre of murder, the seven-woman, five-man jury also found true a special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture.

The jury deliberated for about 5 1/2 hours over two days before reaching its verdict late Wednesday morning.

The penalty phase of Aguirre's trial, during which jurors will be asked whether Aguirre should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole, will begin Nov. 27.

Gabriel's mother, 34-year-old Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, is still awaiting trial for the boy's May 2013 death. Prosecutors are also seeking the death penalty for her.

Aguirre's attorney, Michael Sklar, acknowledged during the trial that Aguirre killed the boy, but told jurors in his closing summation on Monday that the defendant "acted in a rage of anger followed by an explosion of violence" and not with the deliberation and premeditation required for a verdict of first-degree murder.

Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami called Aguirre an "evil" man who "liked torturing" the boy and did so systematically in the months leading up to the child's death. Aguirre hated the boy because he thought he was gay, according to the prosecutor, who began his closing argument by displaying a photo of Gabriel's battered body lying on an autopsy table -- covered in injuries head to toe -- 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 for 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 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, referring to testimony by Gabriel's big brother.

He alleged that the 6-foot-2, 270-pound defendant punched and kicked Gabriel hard enough to dent the walls of the family's apartment and leave the boy 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.

The defense contended 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."

Aguirre's attorney countered that "the evidence, in this case, requires you to find (Aguirre) guilty of (second-degree) murder, not first-degree murder."

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 Gabriel endured 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."

But once his client realized Gabriel was unconscious, "he immediately took steps to begin to revive him," the defense attorney said. The attorney also 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.

Reporter Phil Shuman's thoughts from the courtroom:

Courtrooms and trials are public and open to anyone as long as there is room, and there was a real-life drama played out on the 9th floor of the fabled Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles this afternoon that was so gut-wrenching and powerful it took your breath away.

A man described as ''evil'' by prosecutors was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. Isaura Aguirre is looking at the death penalty later this month.

The prosecutor, Jonathan Hatami, who was limited in his comments because of the upcoming penalty phase admitted to reporters that he too was a victim of child abuse when he was four and five, and that has motivated him to do his job, to fight for victims. He said this verdict was a bit of justice for Gabriel and the community.

A family friend said afterward, that it wasn't a win in the sense that a win would've meant that Gabriel was still alive...but at least Aguirre isn't on the street able to commit these horrific crimes against someone else's child.

After the verdict was read, a powerful moment when Hatami embraced Gabriel's natural father - a man who was in prison when Gabriel was being beaten and tortured by the Mom's boyfriend, Aguirre.

The mother stands trial next year on the same charges, first-degree murder with special circumstance, but she's fighting it, claiming that an ''intellectual disability'' would make her ineligible for the death penalty.

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

Aguirre and the boy's mother have been 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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