Documenting a horrifying story from every conceivable angle, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” examines the abuse and murder of an eight-year-old boy by his mother and her boyfriend, and the ways that the system failed to protect him. Difficult to watch, the documentary is inevitably compelling but structurally messy – a byproduct, perhaps, of stretching the material over six parts.
In that sense, this Netflix presentation falls victim to what’s increasingly an issue with entries within the true-crime genre: Finding a gripping story, then telling it in a disjointed, flabby way. The powerful aspects of the content are thus offset by detours and digressions that could have been excised.
The 2013 killing of Gabriel Fernandez sent shock waves through Los Angeles, triggering understandable outrage over how a child was left in such a terrible situation when there were ample warning signs and tangible evidence of abuse.
From that perspective, the trials of his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre – who subjected the boy to stomach-turning abuse before the beating that took his life – almost feels secondary to the larger indictment of mechanisms intended to intervene in such circumstances.
That included, notably, charges of criminal negligence against social workers who had seemingly accepted the mother’s lies with scant investigation. But the tawdry tale suggests that there was plenty of blame to go around, including the Sheriffs Dept., an organization investigated for a corruption on various levels under since-imprisoned former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca.
Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger wrestles with all of these threads, as well as the role that journalists, particularly at the Los Angeles Times, played in shedding light on the story. There’s even a passage regarding the implications of the press’ diminished watchdog role in light of extensive cutbacks at local papers.
The interviews reach far and wide, including jurors in the case. What the documentary suffers from, ultimately, is a tighter focus, as the narrative meanders in places – spending an inordinate amount of time, for example, with prosecutor Jonathan Hatami, while giving relatively short shrift to the way that media coverage might have shaped the decision to file charges against social workers.
While the story obviously had to end somewhere, a portion near the end also questions what was learned in terms of L.A.’s Dept. of Children and Family Services – an avenue that seems ripe for further discussion, in a way that would have shifted attention from this case to the bigger picture.
The documentary, understandably, carries with it a disclaimer regarding the upsetting nature of the sickening details surrounding Gabriel’s abuse. Yet it’s only possible to fully appreciate the magnitude of the systematic failures by hearing the extent of the torture the boy endured, and the numerous alarms that were ignored.
The main challenge with this kind of documentary series is to identify larger lessons, and the key question raised by “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” comes through loud and clear: Are we doing enough, as a society, to protect kids and when necessary remove them from dangerous situations?
Like everything else about this exhaustive project, the answer is there, but finding it requires something closer to navigating a maze than following a straight line.
“The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” premieres Feb. 26 on Netflix.