LOS ANGELES – Testifying before a jury being asked to recommend if a Palmdale man should be sentenced to death or life in prison for the torture- murder of his girlfriend’s 8-year-old son, the boy’s uncle said Friday that he still remembers the way the child looked in the hospital whenever he thinks about his nephew.
Christopher Contreras told a downtown Los Angeles jury hearing the penalty phase of the case against Isauro Aguirre he flew to Southern California after being notified that something had happened to his nephew, Gabriel Fernandez, in May 2013, and that he felt “angry” and “sad” when he saw the boy.
In emotional testimony, the military veteran said that he had “seen some bad stuff in war,” but said that what the boy went through “makes it nothing.”
“No matter how hard I try, that’s how I remember Gabriel now,” he told the seven-woman, five-man jury that convicted Aguirre, a 37-year-old former security guard, of first-degree murder on Nov. 15 for the boy’s death.
Jurors also found true the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture.
The boy’s 34-year-old mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, is awaiting trial separately. She could also face the death penalty if convicted.
Contreras — who was called as the prosecution’s final witness during its case-in-chief — said the decision to have the boy cremated after his death was made because he did not think anybody else should have to go through seeing the boy “like that.”
The boy’s uncle said he and his wife have adopted two of the boy’s siblings, telling jurors that the children experience feelings of guilt about what happened to their younger brother.
“It’s almost a bad thing to say Gabriel’s name because of the way the kids react … Anything brings it up and there are setbacks,” he said.
The boy’s older brother and sister were not called to the stand during the trial’s penalty phase, but both testified Oct. 18 during the guilt phase of trial about the abuse Gabriel suffered.
His brother, Ezequiel, told jurors his sibling was forced to eat cat litter and cat feces, was repeatedly beaten in the month’s leading up to his death and was frequently kept in a “box” in the bedroom occupied by his mother and Aguirre.
The boy’s sister, Virginia, broke down in tears when she was shown a photo of Gabriel. She testified that her mother and Aguirre had called the boy gay.
Deputy District Attorney Scott Yang told jurors in his opening statement that Aguirre deserves “nothing less than death.” He told jurors that Gabriel was “tortured” like a prisoner of war for eight months, during which he was repeatedly beaten by his mother’s boyfriend.
Defense attorney Michael Sklar countered that his client is “simple,” “slow” and “easily led” and that “there are reasons to spare his life.”
One of Aguirre’s former employers — called to the stand by the defense shortly after it began its portion of the penalty phase of trial — said she recalled him as a “kind and compassionate” person who helped senior citizens with tasks including taking showers and changing diapers at an independent and assisted living facility in Woodland Hills between 2003 to 2006.
Aguirre was “well-liked” by his co-workers and never the subject of any complaints while he worked at the facility, Susan Weisbarth told jurors.
She testified that it was a “total shock” when she learned that Aguirre was charged with the boy’s torture-murder, telling jurors it “wasn’t the person I knew.”
“I think there is good within him because I saw it,” she said, while acknowledging that what happened is “horrible” and “tragic.”
When asked by defense attorney John Alan she believed there was some humanity within Aguirre that made him worth saving, she said simply, “I do.”
Maribel Villasenor, who supervised Aguirre at the job in Woodland Hills, said she also believed his life was worth saving.
“I knew him as a very caring person,” she said, telling jurors that she “couldn’t believe it” when she learned about the case against him. But she said that it didn’t “change the person that I know.”
Gloria Nieves — who operates a store across the street from where Aguirre had lived with his parents and two of his sisters in Canoga Park — told jurors that she was very surprised to hear about the case against him. She described him as “very well-mannered” and “respectful to others,” and said he made sure no cars were coming when children crossed the street to get to her business.
“Do you believe that Isauro Aguirre is inherently evil?” Alan asked.
“No,” she responded.
“Do you believe that Isauro Aguirre is good by nature?” the defense attorney asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
Another witness, Los Angeles Unified School District employee Elias Juarez, testified that district records for Aguirre indicate he was held back in the ninth and 11th grades and that he was 19 years old by his second attempt to complete his junior year in high school. He said the records indicated that Aguirre was in an English as a Second Language curriculum as a seventh- and eighth-grader, and that there was no documentation that Aguirre ever graduated.
Testimony is expected to wrap up by next Thursday, with jurors expected to hear closing arguments Dec. 11 before being asked to recommend to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli which sentence Aguirre should face for the boy’s killing.
Los Angeles County Fire Department personnel went to the family’s home in the 200 block of East Avenue Q-10 in Palmdale on May 22, 2013, 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 Fernandez 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 are awaiting trial on one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying public records involving the boy.
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