The California Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction of a Delano man who has spent the past 26 years on death row after being convicted of sexually assaulting and killing a 21-month-old girl.
In its ruling, the court noted medical experts who testified at the trial of Vicente Figueroa Benavides have now recanted their testimony in light of new evidence.
Specifically, doctors who previously testified the injuries suffered by Consuelo Verdugo could have been caused by rape now say, after reviewing all medical records, that she could not have been sexually assaulted. Some doctors said they weren't provided with all the medical evidence before testifying.
"The evidence now shown to be false was extensive, pervasive, and impactful," the court wrote in its ruling.
The case will now return to Kern County, where the District Attorney's office will decide whether to retry Benavides. If he's not retried, he'll go free.
District Attorney Lisa Green said Monday they're reviewing the opinion and assessing pertinent issues, and expect to make a decision either later this week or by the end of next week.
Benavides, 68, was sentenced to death in 1993 for the sexual assault and murder of Consuelo. She died eight days after the attack.
Benavides lived with the girl's mother and was baby-sitting the victim on the day of her death. The girl's sister testified Consuelo had been drawing with crayons at the dining room table. The sister left and returned 15 minutes later to find Consuelo critically injured.
The child's mother, Estella Medina, and Benavides brought Consuelo to a hospital emergency room at Delano Regional Medical Center the evening of Nov. 17, 1991, according to trial evidence. They said Consuelo had been running after her older sister and hit her head on a door.
The girl's condition worsened and she was transferred to Kern Medical Center, where 20 minutes later her abdomen became "greatly distended," according to statements contained in the court's ruling.
"Diagnostic surgery revealed her bowel, duodenum, and pancreas were 'cracked in half,' with portions of each resting on either side of her spine," the documents state. "The surgeon testified these injuries could have been caused by a kick or punch to the abdomen."
Consuelo died Nov. 25, 1991.
Medical experts later testified a number of Consuelo's injuries could have resulted from rape.
They've now changed their assessment.
When Consuelo was brought to Delano Regional Medical Center, where she was first treated, she showed no signs of sexual assault. A nurse said no one at the hospital noticed any anal or vaginal trauma.
Efforts to save her life may have caused injuries later noticed on her body, according to the documents.
"Her injuries can instead be attributed to medical intervention, including repeated failed efforts to insert a catheter, use of an adult-sized Foley catheter rather than a more appropriately sized device, rectal temperature taking, use of paralytic medication, and physical examination," the documents state.
So what exactly caused Consuelo's death? That remains unclear.
The court says there is "extensive evidence" Consuelo was injured while in the care of Benavides, and the jury heard evidence suggesting she could have been struck by a car.
"But," the court wrote, "in the absence of sexual assault, how those injuries might have been caused, and any motive for their infliction, is less than clear."