What to Know
- Gabriel Fernandez, 8, died after suffering from what the defendant's attorney describes as "unspeakable acts of abuse"
- Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Isauro Aguirre, the boyfriend of Gabriel's mother
- The child's mother will be tried separately
The biological father of an 8-year-old boy who was tortured and beaten to death testified Tuesday in the penalty phase of trial of the boy's stepfather, who was convicted of murdering the child, and said he remembers his son as an energetic young man who loved to run and play.
Arnold Contreras told jurors he never wanted his son, Gabriel Fernandez, to move in with his mother -- Pearl Sinthia Fernandez -- and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.
Contreras said Pearl Fernandez never showed any affection for the boy. Pearl Fernandez, 34, is awaiting trial on a murder charge stemming from Gabriel's May 2013 death.
Aguirre, 37, was convicted Nov. 15 of first-degree murder, along with a special circumstance allegation of murder involving torture. Jurors are now being asked to recommend if Aguirre should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.
Testifying in the penalty phase of Aguirre's trial, Contreras said he was in jail in Riverside County when he learned that his son had been found severely beaten and was on life support. Contreras said he felt guilty and helpless.
"I should have been there," Contreras said, adding that he couldn't find the words to explain how he felt at hearing the news. Contreras had been in and out of jail, and had spent time in prison for robbery and drug possession. Prosecutors said earlier that Contreras believed Gabriel's maternal grandparents would be caring for the boy, but Fernandez and Aguirre "took him away."
Prosecutors showed jurors photos of Contreras with his son, and Contreras described Gabriel as a loving child.
"He was very energetic," he said. "He was -- he liked to play outside. He liked to play cops and robbers" and "play in the backyard."
Contreras told jurors he still has sleepless nights over his son's death, and his life and his family's lives will never be the same. During Aguirre's trial, prosecutors said Gabriel was routinely beaten, shot with a BB gun, forced to eat cat feces and sleep inside a small cabinet while gagged and bound.
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Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami said during the trial that Aguirre is an "evil" man who "liked torturing" the boy and did so systematically in the months leading up to the child's death because he thought the boy was gay.
The prosecutor said the 6-foot-2, 270-pound defendant punched and kicked Gabriel hard enough to dent the walls of the family's apartment and leave the boy unconscious, then -- with help from the boy's mother -- hid some of the child's bloody clothing and moved a picture to cover up one of the biggest indentations before calling 911.
Defense attorney Michael Sklar countered that Aguirre was angry because Gabriel had asked his mother to leave Aguirre and then denied saying so, calling his mother a liar in front of the defendant, who "exploded in a rage of anger" and "was completely out of control."
But once his client realized Gabriel was unconscious, "he immediately took steps to begin to revive him," the defense attorney said, telling jurors that Aguirre told the boy's mother to call 911 for help though he knew it would result in his arrest.
The attorney alleged that Gabriel's mother was the one who hit the boy with a belt, shot him with a BB gun and was responsible for much of the abuse prior to his death. Sklar asked jurors Monday to spare Aguirre's life but punish him "severely" by sending him to prison for life, where he will be "waking up every morning in a prison cell" racked by the thoughts of what he had done to Gabriel.
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 of cardiac arrest.
Gabriel was taken off life support two days later. Two former Los Angeles County social workers -- Stefanie Rodriguez and Patricia Clement -- and supervisors Kevin Bom and Gregory Merritt were charged last year with one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying public records in connection with the case.