A Delano man who spent the past 26 years on death row after being convicted of sexually assaulting and killing a 21-month-old girl will not face retrial after his conviction was overturned last month, District Attorney Lisa Green announced Tuesday.
Vicente Figueroa Benavides, 68, will be released from custody upon his return to Kern County.
Benavides was sentenced to death in 1993 for the sexual assault and murder of Consuelo Verdugo.
The California Supreme Court overturned his conviction after medical experts who testified at his trial recanted their testimony in light of new evidence.
Green said the California Supreme Court opinion and the remaining evidence made it clear there's no theory in which her office could retry Benavides on a charge of first-degree murder.
Even retrying him on a charge of second-degree murder would be "extremely difficult," Green said in a news release.
"The change in opinion of the majority of medical personnel involved in the case would greatly undermine their testimony in any retrial regarding the physical abuse the victim suffered."
Doctors who previously testified Consuelo's injuries could have been caused by rape now say, after reviewing all medical records, that she could not have been sexually assaulted. Some doctors have said they weren't provided with all the medical evidence before testifying.
Additionally, Green said, the maximum sentence Benavides would face for a second-degree murder conviction is 15 years to life. He's already spent 26 years in prison, and if he'd been originally been convicted of that charge he would have been up for parole after 15 years.
"The question of whether Mr. Benavides' would have been granted parole cannot be answered," Green said in the release. "However the advent of elder parole in 2015, which allows an inmate who reaches 60 to be considered for early release by virtue of their age, increases the likelihood that an aging inmate will be paroled."
In short, even if Benavides was convicted of second-degree murder, he would immediately be entitled to a parole hearing and likely released, Green said.
Benavides lived with the girl's mother and was baby-sitting her the day she became injured.
The 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. Surgery revealed her bowel, duodenum and pancreas were "cracked in half," according to statements contained in the court's ruling.
Consuelo died eight days later, and medical experts later testified her injuries could have resulted from rape. Over the years, they've changed their assessment.
Efforts to save Consuelo's life may have caused the injuries later noticed on her body, according to the documents. She showed no signs of sexual assault when she was first treated.