Netflix has released its most powerful and gut wrenching true-crime documentary yet. From filmmaker Brian Knappenberger comes The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, a six-part series that examines the tragic 2013 death of an 8-year-old boy who died after prolonged abuse by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre.
“I first heard about it when the LA Times broke the story. I just thought it was really, really powerful,” Knappenberger tells ET. But he didn’t start making the series until the judge in Aguirre’s trial let them film inside the courtroom. “Those first few days were so powerful and so stirring. It was really moving and emotional.”
While Fernandez pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and Aguirre was convicted of first-degree murder during trial and is facing the death penalty, the Netflix documentary shows that the parents were not the only ones responsible for Fernandez’s death.
“What’s wild is that everything that you heard from the testimony just got more and more mysterious,” Knappenberger says. “Of course, it just got deeper and deeper and deeper. And we got pulled into it that way.”
In fact, the filmmaker used Aguirre’s trial as the framework for the story. Knowing that they were going to have a conclusion in that case allowed him to branch off into different areas and “try to understand all of the other dynamics that were involved here.”
In trying to make sense of what was happening beyond the courtroom, the film takes audiences through an investigation into the local government system to figure out why social services and other programs failed to protect Fernandez, despite the many warning signs leading up to his death.
“We were just blown away,” says the director, who teamed up with former Los Angeles Times journalist Garrett Therolf, who reported on the Fernandez case at the time, to expose the flaws in the system.
As the series unfolds, the circumstances surrounding Fernandez’s death and the trial that followed only get more and more complicated. Later episodes reveal how a “poverty industrial complex” contributed to preventing Fernandez from getting the help he needed, and four social workers are charged with child abuse and failing to prevent the boy’s death.
“The extraordinary thing about the death of this young boy is that it brought forward so many issues, so many problems with our current system,” Knappenberger says. “It really is remarkable that way.”
While the docuseries is eye-opening, it’s also at times hard to watch. It’s certainly one of the more graphic and intense true-crime projects to land on the streaming platform. Oprah Magazine writes, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is Netflix’s most alarming docuseries yet,” while RogerEbert.com critic Brian Tallerico says the series “will haunt you.”
“I think the story probably has a lot more heart than it may seem,” Knappenberger says. When asked about the “unflinching” nature of the docuseries, he says that “we felt very strongly that we needed to bring this story completely to the public.”
Additionally, “there is a sense of closure and understanding that we hope we come to,” the director adds.
Along with shedding light on an important story, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez also acts as a call to action to better protect children in need. “I hope what people take away from this is a demand for greater accountability of these systems and demand for greater transparency within those agencies,” Knappenberger concludes.
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez is now streaming on Netflix.