The mother of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who died after being tortured was sentenced to life in prison on Thursday, while her boyfriend was sentenced to death, marking the end of a high-profile trial that drew attention to severe flaws in L.A. County's child welfare system.
During the sentencing in downtown L.A., the judge said the 2013 killing of Gabriel Fernandez was "worse than animalistic," because "even animals know how to take care of their young."
"In my almost 20 years on the bench in this court, this case is without a doubt the most aggravated and egregious case this court has ever witnessed," Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Lomeli said.
The boy's mother, Pearl Fernandez, 34, in February had pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder and admitted the special circumstance allegation of intentional murder by torture. Her sentence comes without the possibility of parole.
Fernandez's boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, was convicted of first-degree murder on Nov. 15 and a jury found true the allegation that the defendant tortured the victim.
Gabriel was taken to a hospital in May 2013 when he stopped breathing. He had a cracked skull and broken ribs, with B.B. pellets in his lung and groin. He was declared brain dead and died two days later.
The prosecutor in Aguirre's case, Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, argued that Aguirre systematically abused and tortured Gabriel for months because he thought the boy was gay.
Hatami argued that Aguirre and Fernandez worked to keep their treatment of Gabriel hidden by using makeup to cover up his bruises. They exchanged text messages where they discussed how they put him in ice water.
The prosecutor called Aguirre "evil."
In a news release, District Attorney Jackie Lacey said the case will stay in the mind of the public for a long time.
"This case showed how evil can not only inflict lasting damage to those who loved Gabriel but our society as well," Lacey said. "The horrific nature of Gabriel's abuse and murder has been seared into our minds and the defendants will now spend the rest of their lives in prison for their reprehensible actions."
After the sentencing, Hatami said he hopes the verdicts bring "some sense of justice" to Gabriel's family.
"I'm just doing my job, that's it," Hatami said, tearing up. The prosecutor has two young children and has said that the case hit close to home.
The case led to child welfare reforms in L.A. County, and four social workers who were assigned to Gabriel's case were accused of negligence in connection with the boy's death. They have been criminally charged.
In an impact statement delivered before the sentencing, Gabriel's family member told Fernandez that her actions changed her and her family's life forever.
"After five long, heartbreaking years, it’s finally over," the family member said. "Your sentence will be handed down as you hear your jail cell slam."
One of Gabriel's teachers said that she still lives with guilt after the boy's death and wishes she could have done more to prevent it.
"I go back and forth between sadness and guilt and anger, and no matter what, I can't bring him back," said Jennifer Garcia, who tried to help the boy when he was in her class at Summerwind Elementary School.
Garcia testified during the preliminary hearing that she repeatedly called county child service workers to report signs of abuse beginning a few weeks into the 2012-2013 school year, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But when Gabriel was still in his mother's custody months later, Garcia testified that she lost faith in the system and "started to feel nothing was happening."
She said Thursday that she understands the defendants are the ones to blame for Gabriel's death.
"I hope they face same abuse in their life time or worse. ... They are evil people," Garcia said, referring to Fernandez and Aguirre.
Pearl Fernandez spoke briefly before the sentencing. In a prepared statement she said she was sorry.
“Every day, I wish I made better choices," Fernandez said. "I wish I could have saved Gabriel."