Gabriel Fernandez's brother and sister were an important thread of the Netflix documentary

Laura Jane Turner
Photo credit: Netflix

From Digital Spy

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez and this article contain details and discussions of abuse that some readers might find distressing.

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is a harrowing tale of abuse against a young child, who died at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend at the age of just eight.

The true-crime series, which arrived to Netflix on February 26, is unflinching in its presentation of the facts, but makes sure to weave in the human side of the story. As such, the documentary is relentless and by no means an easy or even enjoyable watch.

What happened to Gabriel is beyond comprehension, but it is also clear that his death has inadvertently prompted some important conversations – not just the way in which child safety is assessed and handled, but also in how abuse and trauma can infiltrate the lives of those it touches.

Tragically in this case, it became apparent that there had been a systemic failure. Questions were aimed at the sheriff's department and LA County child services, as they had each been aware of the risks to Gabriel but had clearly not taken the required measures to keep him safe.

Photo credit: Netflix

The documentary packs a lot into its six episodes, with the trials providing the baseline thread from which wider themes are then spun. Both Gabriel's mother Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre were charged with his murder and, due to the extreme and prolonged nature of his injuries, the special circumstance of torture was also added.

In an unprecedented move, criminal charges were also brought against social care workers for alleged failures. These were eventually dropped, but the workers were fired from the LA County Department of Children and Family Services.

Through audio interviews and conversations with the filmmakers, it is clear that Gabriel's case left them steeped in regret, but it was also pointed out that the failure ran much deeper and couldn't be written off as human error. The emotive and reprehensible circumstances around Gabriel's death contributed to widespread criticism of the DCFS, with protests and media coverage pushing for reform.

While this provides a unique lens for the story, it is important not to overlook Gabriel's experience. The documentary does a good job of painting a picture of his character and the happier times of his life, as well as laying out what leads to his final days and moments. It was through footage from Pearl and Isauro's trials that the true extent of what happened to him was brought starkly into the light.

Last warning: the following description includes harrowing information

Photo credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times - Getty Images

Gabriel had two siblings, who were also living in the apartment at the time, and they were each called to testify. His brother was introduced only by the name of Ezequiel, and as they were minors at the time cameras were not permitted to film them in the courtroom. However transcripts of their accounts were taken, and extracts from these were read out in the documentary series.

It was described that the abuse against Gabriel worsened in the months before his death. He would be locked away in a "box" in their mother's bedroom, and not allowed out to use the toilet. He was often tied, gagged and forced to sleep in there, and his sister told detectives that "he always stayed in the dark with no one."

Gabriel was beaten with a belt, shot with a BB gun and he had his teeth knocked out with a bat, and was not taken to the dentist or the doctor. His siblings also described how Gabriel was instructed to eat cat litter, was forced to have cold baths and would be subjected to pepper spray.

Gabriel's brother and sister said that their mother had made them lie to social workers, and Ezequiel said he was concerned "she was going to do the same things to me."

Photo credit: Netflix

While some of this detail was very difficult to hear, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez's decision not to editorialise the children's words and to instead simply present them, exactly as the jury would have heard them, can be commended.

Some might argue that it was not necessary to feature some of the more distressing or graphic information, but this was a living reality for Gabriel, and his brother and sister who witnessed it. They, after all, weren't given the choice in whether to confront it, and their testimony and police tapes also provided an insight into the court process for victims of trauma.

"The experience of witnessing Gabriel's abuse and of having to lie about it, and of their own fears of their parents, it's an enormous burden," a retired professor and psychotherapist with experience of treating abuse survivors said of Gabriel's siblings during the documentary.

The final and fatal beating of Gabriel saw his mother drag him into the bedroom, with Isauro joining her. Gabriel's siblings heard screams and bangs coming from the room and then, according to his brother Ezequiel, it "all stopped" and "it just went quiet."

His mother called the emergency services, making up an excuse for Gabriel's injuries, and he was found unresponsive and taken to hospital. None of his family members went with him in the ambulance. Gabriel was confirmed to be brain dead (via ABC7) and could not breathe on his own. He died two days later.

"For eight straight months, he was abused, beaten and tortured more severely than many prisoners of war," Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami told the jury at trial.

Isauro Aguirre was found guilty of murder in the first degree, and was handed the death penalty. His sentence has not been carried out, and he could spend decades on death row, according to an ABC7 report.

Photo credit: Netflix

Pearl Fernandez pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.

Gabriel's brother and sister have not made themselves public, and it is important to respect their privacy. According to the series, they have now found "safe harbour" and a stable home with a family member.

"You have to have that, to be able to resolve any of the rest of it," the psychotherapist said. "I hope that they will be able to recover... I think they can, but it will be a long process. I mean these are terrifying experiences, terrifying."

"One of the most important aspects in recovering from trauma, that's abuse trauma, is moving it outside of yourself," she later added. "That is, it's not something about you. It's not something you did, it's something that happened to you. And I think that shift is the most important juncture toward healing."

Readers who are affected by the issues raised in this story are encouraged to contact the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000 (www.nspcc.org.uk). Readers in the US are encouraged to contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline on (1-800-422-4453) or the American SPCC (www.americanspcc.org).

Digital Spy now has a newsletter – sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox.

Want up-to-the-minute entertainment news and features? Just hit 'Like' on our Digital Spy Facebook page and 'Follow' on our @digitalspy Instagram and Twitter accounts.

You Might Also Like