On April 19, at 3:50 p.m, Vicente Benavides was escorted out of San Quentin State Prison in a white van.
The doors opened and he stepped out a free man — just two days short of 25 years on death row — after having been wrongfully convicted in Kern County Superior Court on April 20, 1993.
A group of supporters waiting outside the prison’s east gate rushed to greet him, encircling the now white-haired 68-year-old man. Watching Benavides getting hugs and taking selfies seemed almost unreal as people wiped tears away, apparently still in disbelief this moment had finally come.
“We call it like a miracle we have to have faith,” said Jose Luis Figueroa, a friend of the Benavides family. “But we never thought this was going to happen.”
Then Benavides was whisked away by the group including lawyers while a media mob tried to follow shouting questions, but we were kept at bay by prison officials who said we were on state property.
Benavides and family members have declined interviews so far.
This has to rank as one of the most unusual cases in Kern County judicial history.
Convicted for the first-degree murder and sexual assault of 21-month-old Consuelo Verdugo in Delano, the California Supreme Court threw out that conviction earlier this year citing false medical evidence was used at trial to convict Benavides, who always maintained his innocence.
Long after the conviction, it was determined the child died as a result of blunt force trauma to her stomach. Dr. Astrid Heger, considered the preeminent expert in the field of sexual abuse, said she’s convinced “to a high degree of medical certainty that Consuelo’s abdominal and rib injuries were most likely caused by a vehicular accident.”
It turns out the child was never sexually abused, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green admits. Green was not the District Attorney in 1993, nor did she prosecute the case.
When the Supreme Court overturned the conviction, Green had the chance to retry Benavides for second-degree murder, but declined to do so. Yet Green isn’t totally buying the idea that Benavides did not kill Consuelo Verdugo.
“The evidence strongly suggests that Mr. Benavides is not innocent,” said Green in an interview with reporter Olivia LaVoice of KGET, adding, “But it was also convincing that he shouldn’t have been doing time on death row.”
The case has generated strong reaction from all sides. Local defense attorney Arturo Revelo thinks that in a certain way, this case isn’t that unusual at all. He maintains the Benavides case is indicative of how Latino and black defendants get wrongfully convicted in Kern County.
“This case had problems from the very beginning with the medical evidence and yet the court allowed this evidence to be shown to the jury, which they then concluded that Benavides was a monster,” said Revelo.
The case has also had an emotional toll on at least one of the jurors in the 1993 trial.
Gordon Jones was deeply troubled when he learned that false medical evidence was used to convict Benavides. Jones was the last holdout in voting to send Benavides to death row. He’s relieved the man he voted to convict is now a free man. “I would say it’s the best thing that could have happened,” said Jones. He believes there are serious problems with the judicial system.
“How many more cases like this has there been when an innocent man gets convicted?” said Jones. “Who’s next?” One could sense anger and disgust in his voice.
What to make out of this bizarre case?
Equally troubling is that a 21-month-old child was killed and there is no one being held accountable for her death. Where is the justice for her?
Vicente Benavides spent nearly 25 years on death row, a place he did not belong. In that time, both of his parents have gone to their graves with the thought their son was a convicted child molester and killer. He is now trying to adjust to a new life, too old to go back to his old job as a farm laborer working in the fields of Kern County.
According to friends, he has no savings, no health insurance, no Social Security or retirement.
Trying to get compensation from the state for his wrongful conviction is easier said than done. He will have to prove to the California Victims Compensation Board that he is factually innocent of all charges.
I’m not sure what lessons all sides can learn from this most unfortunate experience. Jones said he is writing letters to the California Supreme Court in an attempt to keep this from happening again.
“I will sleep better when legislation is enacted to prevent this cruel court system from systematically proving that innocent people are guilty until they can prove their innocence,” said Jones.
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work generally appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.