The Netflix docu-series "The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez" goes in depth on the horrific and ultimately fatal abuse endured by 8-year-old Gabriel at the hands of his own family — as well as the system that appears to have failed the boy.
Both Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, were convicted on a count of first-degree murder — with Aguirre sentenced to death after jurors found Gabriel was viciously beaten to death in 2013 after enduring horrendous abuse from his supposed caretakers. But prosecutors also saw culpability in the hands of state workers who were entrusted with protecting Gabriel.
During the trial, it was recounted that Gabriel was forced to eat cat feces, slept in a locked cabinet where he was often bound and gagged, and shot in the face with a BB gun by his parental guardians. But it was also noted that various figures in Gabriel's life like teachers and even a security guard reported abuse to the proper channels of Child Protective Services — only for the pleas to apparently be ignored as the abuse ramped up.
Prosecutors opened an investigation into the social workers with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services assigned to Gabriel's case following the conclusion of Pearl and Aguirre's trials in 2018, alleging the officials failed to take appropriate steps to protect the boy and falsified documents relating to his case, ABC 7 reported.
Ultimately, the social workers Stefanie Rodriguez, 34, and Patricia Clement, 69, and two supervisors, Kevin Bom, 40, and Gregory Merritt, 64, all faced charges in connection with the death of Gabriel, with prosecutors alleging they minimized evidence of Gabriel's abuse. Additionally, all four were fired from their jobs following an internal investigation into the group's actions leading up to Gabriel's death on May 23, 2013, CBS Los Angeles reported.
However, the case against the four took a turn earlier this year after a California appellate court ruled that a lower trial court — which denied a motion to dismiss the charges — should have granted the defense's motion to dismiss the case against them, according to NBC Los Angeles.
"We conclude that the petitioners never had the requisite duty to control the abusers and did not have care or custody of Gabriel for purposes of Penal Code section 273a, subdivision (a). We further conclude that the petitioners were not officers within the meaning of Government Code section 6200," wrote Justice Francis Rothschild in a majority opinion, according to local reporting network Patch.com. "There is, therefore, no probable cause to hold them on charges of violating those laws and the trial court should have granted the motions to dismiss."
The criminal case against the four appears to be dead in the water, with Los Angeles County's top prosecutor saying she will not ask California's Supreme Court to review the appellate court decision.
“I want to thank the dedicated deputy district attorneys who have worked diligently to pursue justice on behalf of Gabriel Fernandez,” Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement provided to Oxygen.com. “My office vigorously pursued those who directly caused Gabriel’s death and those who failed to intervene to protect him. While we prevailed against those who inflicted the injuries, the appellate court rejected our theory of criminal liability against the social workers, who my office believed had a duty to protect Gabriel. Unfortunately, in the case against the social workers, state law is not on our side. After reviewing the appellate ruling, I have decided that the best plan of action is to ask the court to de-publish the opinion. In addition, I will explore proposing legislation to impose a legally recognized duty of care on those entrusted with protecting our children.”
The district attorney's office confirmed to Oxygen.com that a motion for a rehearing of the appeals court decision was denied on Jan. 23 and the office will not appeal the case further.
Merritt sat down with The Atlantic for a long-form interview in 2018, in which he expressed guilt for Gabriel's death but said, “I don’t think there’s anything else I could have done." Likewise, Rodriguez told The Atlantic she believed other children in her caseload were in equal or greater danger than Gabriel (both Bom and Clement declined to comment to The Atlantic on their charges). Merritt also spoke with the docu-series, where he defended his handling of the case.
"Those of us who were working the case seem to have done what we could have done," Merritt told the filmmakers while leaving a hearing in the final episode of the docu-series "In my opinion, no crime was committed and I did not commit a crime."
The four former social workers are due back in a Los Angeles courtroom on March 23, where the district attorney's office will not object to a motion to dismiss the charges against them, the Antelope Valley Press reported.
Brian Knappenberger, the director of the docu-series, said the convictions of Pearl and Aguirre provided some closure in the case — but the systemic issues that led to Gabriel's death are still present.
“I’m not a believer in the death penalty so that was harsh for many,” he told the East Bay Times. “But I think that there was some measure of justice for Gabriel’s family when the decision came down for Isauro Aguirre and Pearl Fernandez got life in prison."
“But really the bigger problems, the systemic problems, it’s very, very difficult to understand what’s going happen with that, and how that’s going to change,” Knappenberger continued. “How we can kind of force more transparency, that part is ongoing.
"The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez" is now available to stream on Netflix.
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