Testifying in the penalty trial of a Palmdale man convicted of the torture-murder of his girlfriend’s 8-year-old son, the boy’s teacher said Thursday that it fell to her to explain to the child’s classmates that he would not be returning to school because he had been killed.
“I had to look at those kids in the face and I had to tell them that their classmate was not coming back. I had to look at their little faces … and tell them that he was dead,” Jennifer Garcia told the Los Angeles jury tasked with recommending whether Isauro Aguirre should be sentenced to death or life in prison for Gabriel Fernandez’s May 2013 death.
During the first phase of Aguirre’s trial, Garcia testified that she called authorities to report the boy’s account that he was being abused months before his death and that she called them on other occasions throughout the school year regarding concerns about the him — more frequently than any other child she has taught in her decade-long career.
On Nov. 15, the seven-woman, five-man panel convicted the 37-year-old former security guard of first-degree murder and found true the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture, making him eligible for capital punishment.
The boy’s 34-year-old mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, is awaiting trial separately. She could also face the death penalty if convicted.
“I had to explain to those kids his mom killed him,” the boy’s teacher said, recalling what she told his first-grade classmates at Summerwind Elementary School in Palmdale. “I had to explain to them that there are good people and bad people in the world, and sometimes those bad people can be parents.”
She testified that she didn’t fill his empty seat for the rest of the school year and still doesn’t use the number 28, which she had assigned to him. She said she tells her students about Gabriel when they ask why she skips over the number 28.
“After what happened to him … I just couldn’t give that number to another kid,” Garcia testified.
Under questioning by Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami, the teacher said she feels guilt over what happened to the boy, telling jurors that he “suffered a horrible fate” and that she thinks about him “all the time.” She said she spoke at a vigil the school hosted in his honor, telling jurors that she spoke about the “positive memories” she had of him.
In other testimony:
— Los Angeles County sheriff’s Homicide Detective Timothy O’Quinn told the jury that authorities set up listening devices to try to record what Aguirre and Fernandez said in adjacent holding cells at the Antelope Valley courthouse in Lancaster in August 2013, less than five months after the boy’s death. The listening device in Aguirre’s cell did not function properly, he said.
The jury heard three recordings, including one in which Fernandez asked Aguirre whether he had called the boy’s death accidental and why she had been charged with the child’s murder.
“Do you know why they, they got that murder charge on me?” Fernandez asked Aguirre, telling him that it was “because you said I was inside the room.”
“And I said, no, that I was not there,” the woman told Aguirre in a conversation in which she repeatedly called him “Babe” and asked whether he could hear her.
She told Aguirre that she was first booked on suspicion of child endangerment, and that “they got me with a murder charge” because of what he told detectives.
“They told me that you had said that I was right there and that you had beat him but that you didn’t mean it, you just snapped,” she told her boyfriend.
— O’Quinn stood in front of the jury box and gave jurors a close-up look at a high-powered BB gun, metal baton, black wooden baseball bat and wooden club that the prosecution says were used in attacks on the boy.
— Detective Eliott Uribe, who works in the sheriff’s child abuse unit, testified that he went to the hospital and saw the “lifeless” boy with burn marks, lacerations and bruising over almost his entire body, and said he had never seen a child with that many injuries in his 26-year law enforcement career.
— Dr. Karen Kay Imagawa, the chief of staff at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said the boy’s injuries from the BB gun “really stood out” to her. She noted that the child also had “very deep bruising,” multiple rib fractures and multiple injuries of differing ages that would have been painful.
The prosecution is expected to wrap up its portion of the penalty phase Friday morning, with the defense then expected to begin calling witnesses in its portion of the case.
In his opening statement Monday, Deputy District Attorney Scott Yang told jurors that Aguirre deserves “nothing less than death.”
“Gabriel was taken from the only parents he knew,” Yang said of the boy’s grandparents, who cared for him before his mother and Aguirre took him away. “And for eight months he was abused, he was tortured and he was beaten, like a prisoner of war, at the hands of the defendant.”
The boy was routinely beaten, shot with a BB gun, forced to eat cat feces and sleep inside a small cabinet while gagged and bound, according to prosecutors.
One of the defendant’s attorneys, Michael Sklar, countered that “there are reasons to spare his life.” He told jurors that his client is “simple,” “slow” and “easily led” and had no history of violence or prior felony convictions.
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.
–City News Service
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