The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez: Documentary Review

Rarely do I find myself as affected by documentaries as I did by Netflix’s The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, which talked about the systematic torture and death of a seven year old by the hands of his own mother and her boyfriend. I’ve seen my fair share of documataries about serial killers, sociopaths and psychopaths but there’s absolutely nothing that prepared me for this limited series.

The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez did an excellent job of laying the groundwork for giving a voice to the child who was never able to talk. Through the accounts of his family members, classmates, teachers and witnesses, the series fleshed out the torture that happened over the span of eight months while he was in the care of his abusive guardians.

I was already bawling within the first five minutes of the opening sequence when the charting nurse documented his injuries one by one. I could not fathom how much pain the child went through as he suffered from wave after wave of torture — from head trauma, to cigarette burns, wounds, scars, black eyes and countless other injuries. Little did I know that as the trial progressed, there would be more.

I was shocked as it was revealed by the coroner that he found substance that matched cat litter in Gabriel’s stomach. Marks on his hands and legs revealed that he was handcuffed, gagged, humiliated and stored in a cabinet after he was beaten by his so-called parents.

There was no remorse in the eyes of the two villains, and I even noticed a smirk from Pearl when her final sentence was read out. I have no doubt that to the very end, Isauro felt no guilt about his crime and that he only remained silent because of Pearl. It was scary to think that his defense never even tried to deny his role in Gabriel’s death and only sought to mitigate the charges to second degree murder. It was unfathomable.

On the opposite side of the spectre, I felt the same intensity from the veteran first responders who were shocked by Gabriel’s case — the paramedics, the nurses, the investigator who finally took charge. I wished that people like them were the same people who dealt with Gabriel’s case from the onset. Things would have turned out differently.

The trial was not just about seeking justice against the monsters who killed Gabriel but also those who were instrumental in his death. While there were parts of the documentary that seemed to justify the social workers’ and the deputies’ failure to remove Gabriel from his abusive home, the fact that all of the responders who responded to calls about his welfare were all desensitized enough to breeze through his case and even scare him out of “lying” was deplorable. They deserved to be punished just as much as the villains for not doing their job. 

The massive lapses in the system was only aggravated by workers who went through the motions given that lives are jeopardized by each wrong decision. In the heart of it is politics — the need to protect the status quo so as not to shake the decades long system, even though its already falling apart.

While journalism is being touted nowadays as a dying field, it is worthy to note that these journlists were the watchdogs who were the first to smell the story and bring it out to the public. As the fourth estate, journalists diligently sought out sources and did an even better job of investigating than local law enforcement. Journalists were the MVPs in Gabriel’s case more than anyone else.

It irked me to no end how communities came together after Gabriel’s death but never did anything when they knew he was being abused. He was a little boy. His teacher tried to help but was it enough when it was obvious that she should have done more given the state he was in? She saw him everyday, always with fresh bruises. The GAIN security guard never even thought twice about reporting Gabriel’s case and he only saw the child only once.

Some might say it is easy to find fault but only a few people out of this sordid tale can come out with no guilt. Almost everybody was guilty of something and sadly, not everyone was punished because they were protected by the system. It is my sincere hope that they never receive a moment’s peace for the role they played in Gabriel’s death.

It was a good call for the DA’s office to include the social workers in the charge but I would have hoped that they included the deputies in the liability as well. They collectively let Gabriel’a abuse slip through the cracks and there’s really no excuse for that. Their part was even more deplorable in this tragic tale. 

Personally though, I was a bit annoyed by how much Hatami was relishing the attention on the case and his flair for the dramatics knowing full well that was going to be the star of a documentary. I do applaud him for the hard work that finally laid Gabriel to rest, however. 

I am actually quite worried for Gabriel’s brother and sister and what would become of them afterwards. After witnessing the torture and being made as accessories to the crime, I can only imagine how this experience will impact their lives. I broke down when it came to their testimonies and statements, so honest were the kids in revealing the details of their brothers’ torture.

I would have liked to hear more of the defense side in order to understand what drove Isauro and Pearl to torture Gabriel apart from the prosecution’s belief that the assaults were fueled by hate and homophobia. Did the torture give them a thrill? Were they psychopaths who fed off each other and just happened to pick Gabriel as their prey? 

All in all, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez was an insightful documentary that covered all of the bases. It told the story well from start to finish. Kudos to filmmaker Brian Knappenberger, the researchers, the journalists and all the people who made this documentary happen. A piece of advice. This is not for the fainthearted. Not everyone has the stomach to finish this series. 

Rest in Peace, Gabriel.