Kern man on Death Row for 24 years to be set free

Kern County's Questionable Conviction
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A Kern man who has been on Death Row for decades will be set free. 

District Attorney Lisa Green announced Tuesday afternoon she will not seek a new trial for Vicente Benavides, 68, whose first-degree murder conviction and death sentence were reversed by the California Supreme Court. 

The charges will be formally dismissed on Monday morning. Representatives from CDCR say once they get a court order, Benavides could be released within the hour.

Benavides has been incarcerated for the case since 1991.

Key medical experts who testified for the prosecution at his 1993 trial now believe he is factually innocent- he did not kill anyone. 

Many prosecutors within Green’s office remain convinced Benavides is guilty of the murder of his girlfriend’s daughter but they believe changes in the testimony of the key witnesses make it impossible to win a conviction at a jury trial. Some prosecutors argued he should be re-tried on the lesser charge of second-degree murder.

Green’s decision comes five weeks after the California Supreme Court reversed Benavides’ murder conviction and death sentence. 

In a unanimous decision, the seven justices of the high court ruled March 12 that “false evidence” was used to convict Benavides in his Bakersfield trial. 

That decision left Green with just two choices: Put Benavides on trial again or set him free.

He probably will be free with days.

The case was the topic of a KGET special report: Kern’s Questionable Conviction:

Benavides was 42 and living with his girlfriend and her two children when the younger child, 21-month-old Consuelo Verdugo, died in November 1991. Doctors agreed she died of internal injuries. The cause of those injuries became the focus of Benavides’ murder trial. 

The child was alone with Benavides for 15 minutes before her injuries were noticed.

The pathologist who performed the autopsy said the girl had been so viciously raped that the assault caused the fatal injuries. 

Benavides said he didn’t know how she had been injured; he speculated she might have been hit by a car in the parking lot of the apartment complex where they lived.  

The jury believed prosecution doctors and convicted Benavides of murder in the course of a sexual assault and recommended a death sentence. 

Experts now say the little girl was never assaulted and probably was run over by a car. 

Dr. Jess Diamond, who testified in hundreds of molestation cases and was head of pediatrics at Kern Medical Center, was a key prosecution witness.

He now says he was not provided all relevant information before he testified against Benavides.

“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.”

Dr. Astrid Hager, one of the nation’s top experts in child abuse, 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. 

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