The case against four California social workers charged in the shocking 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez has been dismissed.
Stefanie Rodriguez, 35; Patricia Clement, 69; and their respective supervisors, Kevin Bom, 41; and Gregory Merritt, 64, were charged in 2016 in connection with the Fernandez's death. They were accused of failing to take appropriate action to prevent the death of the Antelope Valley boy, who'd endured months of abuse by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.
“Justice is supposed to be for the people and by the people,” Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, who prosecuted Gabriel’s mother and her boyfriend, told Oxygen.com on Friday. “If a DCFS social worker commits gross negligence in her or his job, and, as a result, a child under her or his care is murdered, the citizens of California should have the legal ability to hold that social worker criminally responsible.”
He said while he respects the court's decision, he doesn't agree with it.
“The law should be changed in California,” he said. “It saddens me, frustrates me, and [it] feels that justice for Gabriel hasn’t been completely served. I am sorry to Gabriel’s family. I’m also sorry to the community. I’ll continue to work as hard as I can to help vulnerable children and their families.”
Fernandez and Aguirre's abuse of Gabriel was shocking: they put out lit cigarettes on his body, shot him in the face with a BB gun, made him eat cat litter and feces, and forced him to sleep in a locked cabinet, often while gagged and bound. The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, was alerted to the abuse, but it continued and Gabriel died nonetheless. The social workers' alleged misconduct was chronicled in Netflix’s recent docuseries "The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez." The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office blamed them in part for the boy’s death, and charged each of the four with one felony count of child abuse and falsifying public records.
"Those of us who were working the case seem to have done what we could have done," Merritt said in the docuseries. "In my opinion, no crime was committed and I did not commit a crime."
There were hints of the case’s dismissal earlier this year when an appellate court panel found in January that there was no probable cause to hold the social workers on their charges, NBC Los Angeles reported at the time. They ruled that the trial judge should have granted the defense's motion to dismiss the case against them. That same month, Los Angeles County prosecutors asked the appellate court panel to reconsider its ruling.
The decision to charge the social workers in the first place was an unprecedented one.
“My office vigorously pursued those who directly caused Gabriel’s death and those who failed to intervene to protect him,” Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey previously said in a statement provided to Oxygen.com in February. “Unfortunately, in the case against the social workers, state law is not on our side.”
While the social workers involved in Gabriel’s case will not face legal consequences, his mother and her boyfriend have. Pearl Fernandez dodged a possible death sentenced by pleading guilty in 2018 to first-degree murder and to the special circumstance allegation of murder involving torture. She is currently serving life in prison.
Aguirre was convicted the same year of first-degree murder with the special circumstance of intentional murder by torture. He is currently on death row at San Quentin.
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