One of the most horrific child-abuse cases in Ventura County's recent history took a sudden twist Friday when the mother changed her plea and admitted to killing her 2-year-old daughter.
The day her murder retrial was scheduled to begin, Gabriela Hernandez pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter in the beating death of her daughter Joselin five years ago.
Dressed in jail blues, the 23-year-old Hernandez faced the prosecutor with downcast eyes and said "guilty" to two charges--voluntary manslaughter and child abuse.
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors dropped second-degree murder charges against the former Oxnard resident. Hernandez could face a maximum sentence of 12 years and four months when she is sentenced April 23. Because she has already served four years, Hernandez could be released before her 30th birthday.
Defense attorney Kay Duffy said her client changed her plea in part because she did not want to relive the death of her daughter by sitting through a second trial.
"She's spent much of her youth incarcerated," Duffy said. "Now she's going to have the opportunity to start her life over again."
Duffy said Hernandez, who has served much of her time at a state women's prison in Chowchilla, wants to have a release date to anticipate.
Prosecutor Dee Corona said she believed the lesser charge was fair.
"Hernandez offered to take responsibility for the abuse and murder of her child," Corona said. "We accepted that offer."
Joselin Hernandez died June 22, 1996, after being hit so hard in the stomach that her intestine severed. The autopsy showed she also had burns, bruises and broken bones.
The case turned a spotlight on how the county's social services agency handles child-abuse cases. Critics said social workers ignored warning signs that might have saved the toddler's life. They had removed Joselin from her parents' care, but gave the child back just months before her death.
In 1998, Gabriela Hernandez was convicted of second-degree murder and fatal assault of a child and was sentenced to 15 years to life. Her husband, Rogelio, was convicted of first-degree murder, torture and multiple counts of child abuse, and was sentenced to 41 years to life.
An appellate court overturned her conviction last summer, writing that the trial court judge should not have barred expert testimony on battered-woman syndrome. That testimony could have explained why Gabriela failed to protect her daughter from Rogelio's abuse, the justices wrote.
Prosecutors filed new murder charges, and Gabriela Hernandez has been in custody at the sheriff's honor farm awaiting a new trial.
Corona had planned to argue that Gabriela just stood by and watched as Rogelio beat and burned Joselin, and that Gabriela could have prevented her daughter's death by stepping forward.
But defense attorneys intended to present evidence that Gabriela was a battered woman so paralyzed by fear that she could not stop her husband from torturing Joselin. They said she tried, in her own meager ways, to end the abuse.
Duffy said she plans to argue for a low-term sentence, which could result in her client's release as early as this spring.
In an interview from the honor farm last month, Hernandez said she hoped to someday pursue a career in psychology. But even when Hernandez is released, she still faces a hurdle in her plans. As an undocumented Mexican immigrant and convicted felon, she will have to go through a deportation hearing.