"Horrendous, inhumane and nothing short of evil," Judge George Lomeli described the crimes of Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.
In 2018, the couple was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 2013 death of Fernandez's 8-year-old son, Gabriel. What was uncovered in the five years leading up to the trial revealed the worst case of neglect and child abuse that many officials had ever seen.
In Netflix's latest devastating docuseries, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, award-winning documentarian Brian Knappenberger traces the institutional failures and inhumane child abuse that caused the death of Gabriel Fernandez. Rated M for graphic descriptions of violence against a child, the six-part series follows lead prosecutor Jon Hatami as he asks for the death penalty against Fernandez and Aguirre. Knappenberger allows the docuseries to be a difficult viewing experience, recreating the brutal existence of Gabriel with brief dramatic reenactments, crime scene photos, and quick cuts to the autopsy photos, which revealed the extent of the abuse.
"The documentary is a really difficult watch but it's an important one," Knappenberger told EW. "We made the decision that Gabriel's voice needed to be heard, and in order to tell that story we had to be as honest and as straightforward as we possibly could. I think that in the end, this is a story of a kind of redemption, or a questioning of how things can be better in this system and that has motivated us to tell the story." Prior to his death, Gabriel was forced to sleep in a cupboard at the end of his mother's and Aguirre's bed, often bound and gagged; he was severely beaten by Aguirre, who believed the 8-year-old was gay and only gave the boy two dresses to wear; investigators found that the boy was forced to eat cat litter more than once.
The scope of the trial also involved the criminal negligence of four social workers who failed to remove Gabriel from his mother's custody despite at least 13 reports of suspected child abuse being filed with family services. "Nobody listened to Gabriel when he was alive," Knappenberger told TIME. "A lot of people failed him, and there's a lot of reasons that this happened. But when you get to the end, it's about: how do you want to treat kids?"
On a wider scale, the docuseries is an exploration of the complex layers of child abuse and its aftermath. As the episodes trace the development of the trial, Knappenberger also turns our attention to the far-reaching effects of child abuse, from Gabriel's siblings who witnessed the abuse to the security guard who tried to get local authorities to intervene to his teacher, whom Gabriel confided in about the abuse. In a revealing interview, the lead prosecutor even reflects on his own experience with child abuse. While Hatami says he would never compare his experiences to those of his clients, it does inform his goals in court: "That's the real thing people need to understand: the stress of being beaten everyday, the stress of not having any toys, the stress of being ashamed of who you are, the stress of feeling that it's your fault; being scared every day."
In a sense, this humanizing lens doesn't completely forsake Pearl Fernandez, either. "The answers aren't as easy as you think they are in the beginning," Knappenberger noted, "It's easy to demonize both of them, and they deserve it. There are plenty of people who have been abused that didn't turn out this way. I think the more you learn about Pearl and Isauro, you'll understand where they came from—particularly Pearl." During her trial, she was evaluated by clinical psychologist Deborah S. Miora and found to have a severely limited intellectual capacity that rendered her "virtually unable to use thought to guide her behavior and moderate her emotional reactions." She was further diagnosed with a depressive disorder, developmental disability, a possible overall personality disorder, and PTSD from her own childhood with an abusive mother. "Like her son, she probably had no one to turn to," says Wendy Smith, a Distinguished Scholar at USC's School of Social Work.
While trauma survivors like Jon Hatami drew from their experiences to protect others, Pearl became the embodiment of a broken system. Absence of care and oversight became repeated patterns of abuse and dehumanization, resulting in the death of a child. Knappenbrerger said, "The word evil was thrown around the courtroom a lot, which surprised me a little bit. There's no question that these acts were evil but there's also a broken system that allows this to happen. Which is more evil? Which causes more pain? There's no excuse for Pearl or Isauro and I want that to be clear. But they are humans who were a product of their own upbringing, and that's a big part of the story, too."
During Pearl Fernandez's and Isauro Aguirre's sentencing, Judge George Lomeli said, "I hope you think about the pain you caused this child and that it tortures you. I rarely say that." In The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, Knappenberger doesn't just examine the fatal abuse that Gabriel experienced but rather the long-term effects that abuse has on society, from immediate family members to teachers, social workers, and first responders who live with regret and confusion. Viewers begin to feel that same sense of regret over how easily systems become broken and how broken systems destroy lives.