BREAKING NEWS: Death penalty reversed; “false evidence” used in trial, court rules

Kern County's Questionable Conviction
Questionable_Conviction_1_20180310015735

A Kern County man on Death Row may be innocent and his murder conviction and death sentence have been reversed, the California Supreme Court ruled today. 

The high court cited “false evidence” in reversing the conviction of Vincente Figueroa Benavides. He’s been in prison 26 years on the case but soon may be free.

Benavides, now 68, was convicted of raping his girlfriend’s 21-month-old daughter so savagely that the tiny child suffered fatal internal injuries. 

Experts now say the little girl was never assaulted and probably was run over by a car. One key prosecution witness said he was not provided key evidence before he testified and called the conviction “a tragedy.” 

The decision reverses the first-degree murder conviction and death sentence and returns the case to Kern County for a new trial. District Attorney Lisa Green said retrying the case is unlikely because key evidence has been discredited. 

That means all charges probably will be dismissed and Benavides will be released from prison. 

The case was the topic of a KGET special report: Kern’s Questionable Conviction: http://www.kerngoldenempire.com/questionable-conviction

“This is among the most hair-raising false evidence (cases) that I’ve encountered in all the time I’ve been looking at criminal cases,” Justice Carol Corrigan said when the case was argued before the seven justices in January. Corrigan is a former prosecutor. 

There was never any question Consuelo Verdugo died of internal injuries in 1991 or that Benavides was alone with her for a critical 15 minutes just before her injuries were noticed.

The autopsy surgeon hired by the Kern County Coroner ruled the child died of injuries caused by a vicious rape. 

Another doctor, the head of pediatrics at Kern Medical Center, reviewed the pathologist’s findings and agreed the sex assault was the cause of death.

Then-Deputy District Attorney Robert Carbone presented the testimony of both doctors to the jury when the case came to trial in 1993. The jury convicted Benavides of first-degree murder and recommended the death penalty. Judge James M. Stuart concurred and sent Benavides to Death Row. 

On appeal, lawyers argued Benavides is developmentally disabled. His attorneys presented evidence he has an IQ of 72 and the mental ability of a 7-year-old but, in 2005, the California Supreme Court upheld the conviction and death sentence.

Benavides is now represented by the state-funded Habeas Corpus Resource Center in San Francisco. Lawyers there brought the case back to the Supreme Court.

HCRC attorneys developed information that discredited the medical testimony that was the heart of the prosecution case.  

Dr. Jess Diamond, who testified in hundreds of molestation cases and was head of pediatrics at Kern Medical Center, said he was not provided all relevant information before he testified against Benavides 24 years ago.

“After reviewing the medical records and photographs that I should have been provided in 1993, I am convinced that this case presents a tremendous failing of the criminal justice system,” Diamond said in sworn statement aimed at reversing Benavides’ conviction. 

He called the conviction “a tragedy.”

Carbone, the former Kern County prosecutor who won the conviction, said he didn’t understand  why Diamond changed his mind, but said he respected the doctor. 

“Most of what I learned about prosecuting child molest or other sexual assault cases came from Dr. Diamond,” Carbone said of his time in the Kern County District Attorney’s Office. “He was our source.”

Carbone said he remains convinced Benavides caused the child’s death. 

But he said he can’t explain the findings of Dr. Astrid Heger, one of the country’s top experts on child abuse. 

Heger was brutal in her criticism of the conviction.

“Dr. Heger’s work speaks for itself,” Carbone said. “I mean, she’s the preeminent expert in the Western United States.”

Hager said the original autopsy finding, that the child died of sex abuse, “… is so unlikely to the point of being absurd. 

“No such mechanism of injury has ever been reported in any literature of child abuse or child assault,” Hager said in a sworn declaration.

“I am convinced to a high degree of medical certainty that Consuelo’s abdominal and rib injuries were most likely caused by a vehicular accident rather than by physical abuse,” she said. 

Benavides had no previous criminal record and always maintained his innocence. 

In November, 1991, he was unemployed and living with Estella Medina and her two daughters in an apartment in Delano.  

When Medina went to work on Nov. 17, 1991, Benavides was left to babysit. The 9-year-old daughter went outside to play. Just 15 minutes later, Benavides called her back into the house and told her to call her mother because 21-month-old Consuelo was sick.

They took Consuelo to Delano Regional Medical Center and then to Kern Medical Center.  She was suffering from massive internal injuries. She died eight days after she was hurt.  

Benavides told Delano police he didn’t know how she was hurt. He said she might have been clobbered by the swinging door when her sister left the house; or perhaps she left the house with her sister and was hit by a car in the apartment parking lot. 

The habeas corpus case was argued in front of the California Supreme Court on Jan 3. 

Deputy Attorney General Kenneth Sokoler, representing the prosecution, conceded “false evidence” required the reversal of the death penalty and first-degree murder conviction.    

He argued that even with all evidence of sexual abuse thrown out, there is enough to convict Benavides of second-degree murder. 

“The evidence was undisputed,” Sokoler told the justices. “The victim was left in petitioner’s care for a maximum of 15 minutes. And when those 15 minutes were over, her pancreas had been torn in half by being smashed against her spinal cord.”

Justice Carol Corrigan had a problem with that argument.

“I mean it basically comes down to, ‘he was with her and she died, so it must’ve been him and he did it for reasons we don’t know, but it must have been malicious,’ ” Justice Corrigan said. 

“That’s quite a case,” she added sarcastically.

Benavides’ attorney, Paula Fog, argued the now-discredited baby-raping accusations made it difficult for the jury to give him a fair trial.

Chief Justice Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye seemed to agree. “This was the bomb that was dropped on the jury,” she told the deputy AG. “They couldn’t hear or see anything after that.”

The case took another strange twist in 2007 when an investigator for the HCRC was convicted of falsifying documents in four cases, including Benavides.

The entire decision can be read online here, but be advised it contains graphic descriptions of the original case against Benavides: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S111336.PDF

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