UCI Law Students Assist Netflix on New Docuseries, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez”


Students at the University of California, Irvine School of Law (UCI Law) assisted in the release of public documents that were used in the making of the new Netflix docuseries called “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez.” UCI Law students worked for more than a year to unseal court records for the co-producer of the series, Garrett Therolf, who is also a staff writer at UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program.

Therolf used the court records in the Netflix series to bring national attention to the repeated failure of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services to protect chronically abused children from being killed by their parents and caregivers.

The law students, who work under the supervision of Susan Seager the Director of the Press Freedom and Transparency practice in the Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology (IPAT) Clinic at UCI Law, won disclosure of confidential juvenile court records for two child abuse victims, Anthony Avalos and Noah Cuatro, whose deaths are investigated by Therolf in the final episode of the Netflix series.

“This clinic is a godsend to journalism in California. Without access to public records, reporters too often can't get to the truth and citizens too often are left in the dark,” said David Barstow, Head of Investigative Reporting at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “We have come to think of Susan and her amazing law school students as our SWAT team, always at the ready to leap into the never-ending battle for transparent, accountable government.”

The docuseries, directed by Brian Knappenberger, was released on Netflix on Feb. 26, 2020. The docuseries was Netflix’s most popular original series during its launch, according to the Los Angeles Times. The docuseries can be found here.

“Susan’s team has been our indispensable partner as we pry loose details about systemic failures that harm, and sometimes kill, abused and neglected children,” said Therolf. “The agencies that serve these children are often built on the concept of secrecy, and we would be dead in the water without the UC Irvine Law clinic’s tireless work to shine a light on them.”

The final episode of the Netflix series focuses on the court files obtained by the law students, revealing what happened to Noah Cuatro, who was four years old when he was allegedly killed by his parents in July 2019 and Anthony Avalos, who was ten years old when he was allegedly killed by his parents in June 2018. The first five episodes focused on the death of Gabriel Fernandez, who was killed by his parents in 2013 when he was eight years old.

“It was a great experience to represent Therolf in juvenile court,” said Emily Hoark, a second-year law student at UCI Law. “When requesting the records, our team felt the urgency of the matter. Maybe the insight from the records could prevent the death of another innocent child.”

“Advocating in court on behalf of a journalist reinforced for me the longstanding importance of the First Amendment, as well as the press’s fundamental role to obtain and deliver prompt news to the public,” said Betty Kim, a student at UCI Law.

The students’ work for Therolf is not over. The students continue to seek juvenile court records for Therolf to reveal how other children were fatally abused while under the care of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

In February, the students filed a motion in the Los Angeles Superior Court criminal division asking a judge to unseal the secret transcript of the grand jury that indicted Noah Cuatro’s parents for allegedly torturing, sexually abusing, and killing Noah. The motion is pending.

“Working with zealous advocate Garrett Therolf allows our clinic to be the voice for these children and for all children who are victims of alleged neglect and abuse. We refuse to turn a blind eye,” said UCI Law student, Hedyeh Tirgardoon. “By holding government agencies accountable for their failure to protect children under their care, we hope to usher in a new era of transparency, responsibility, and protection to prevent atrocities like the deaths of Noah Cuatro, Anthony Avalos, and Gabriel Fernandez. Their deaths were preventable. It is as simple as that.”

In addition to Tirgardoon, Horak, and Kim, the law students who have worked -- and are still working —for Therolf include: Emily Asgari, Sachli Balazadeh-Nayeri, Nia Bush, Amy Chi, Cassie Doutt, Shanxi Feng, Henry Glitz, Kennedy Holmes, Jacob Karim, and Anthony Mendez.

The law clinic provides free legal services to independent journalists, documentary filmmakers, open government advocates, and start-up businesses, among others. “The students have done a fantastic job representing Garrett and winning court orders releasing secret government files,” said Seager.