The California Supreme Court this week overturned the murder conviction and death sentence of Vicente Benavides. Kern County prosecutors relied on various medical experts when it prosecuted Mr. Benavides for the 1991 murder of a 21-month old girl named Consuelo Verdugo. The defendant maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal, stating that the child must have sustained the injuries that caused her death through some kind of accident of which he was unaware. But, the State’s experts testified that, based on the gruesome injuries she seemingly suffered during the crime, the victim had been brutally raped and maliciously killed. The California Supreme Court’s decision rejects that narrative outright. So too did the prosecution at this point, which conceded that the scientific evidence used to levy charges of sexual violence was false. (The prosecution asked the court to reduce the defendant’s conviction to second-degree murder, but the justices refused, finding that the false evidence fundamentally changed the case against Mr. Benavides.)
It turns out that every expert that had been involved in the case—with the exception of forensic pathologist Dr. James Dibdin—recanted their trial testimony. The post-conviction defense team produced powerful evidence from various new experts detailing how the injuries and physical symptoms that prompted the State’s trial experts to conclude there had been some kind of violent sex offense were almost certainly caused by medical interventions attempted by various professionals attempting to save the victim’s life at the first facility where she received treatment. They also concluded that Dr. Dibdin’s theory of the crime was anatomically impossible. Justice Corrigan, writing for the unanimous court, explained that “[t]he evidence now shown to be false was extensive, pervasive, and impactful.”
Now, well over two decades after he was convicted, Mr. Benavides may soon be freed. According to a local media report, “District Attorney Lisa Green said retrying the case is unlikely because key evidence has been discredited.” This tragic case raises difficult questions about who bears responsibility for the injustice. One might feel sympathy for the previous DA, who simply took the words of their experts and pursued what looked like a righteous conviction. Before jumping to that conclusion, take a breath, and recall that context matters. It always does.
Kern County is a national leader when it comes to the number of wrongful convictions that have led to exonerations. A massive scandal around a series of child sex abuse cases explains this odd fact. The National Registry of Exonerations explains:
From 1984 through 1986 at least 30 defendants were convicted of child sex abuse and related charges and sentenced to long prison terms in a series of inter-related cases in Kern County, California, and an additional 8 defendants accepted plea bargains that kept them out of prison. Over time, 20 of the defendants who were sentenced to prison were exonerated . . . .
How did things go so terribly wrong? There’s no need to look past the long-reigning District Attorney, Ed Jagels. In his blistering critique of Jagels, Radley Balko paints a compelling portrait of a wild-eyed, manipulative prosecutor determined to convict ham sandwiches at every turn:
In his 1999 book Mean Justice, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes noted that by Jagels’ second term, the D.A. had tripled the number of prosecutorial misconduct complaints of his predecessor. He was regularly berated by appellate courts for withholding exculpatory evidence and for his courtroom behavior, admonishments Jagels seemed to relish. Bakersfield had gone from a blue-collar town of farmers and oil workers to the poster city for the lock ‘em up movement. Residents touted the city’s mock slogan: “Come for vacation, leave on probation.”
What the media reports about the Benavides decision fail to mention is that the defendant was prosecuted while Jagels was running the DA’s office off the rails.
The fact that Kern County had a terrible DA does not necessarily suffice to explain what happened to Mr. Benavides. But it helps. (After all, prosecutorial misconduct is a major contributor to wrongful convictions, as confirmed in a new report by the National Registry of Exonerations.) A closer look at the California Supreme Court’s opinion shows that prosecutors could have brought a lot more clarity to the case much sooner had they simply shared the full array of medical evidence with their experts. All of the recanting State experts explained that their initial opinions were based on the limited facts presented to them by the prosecution during the investigation. Had prosecutors given them the “complete medical record,” including documents from the first facility that treated the victim, every expert but one would have concluded that no rape or assault occurred. The logical question: why didn’t the prosecution share the whole medical record with all of its medical experts?
While the current DA, Lisa Green, at least possessed the sense to concede that Mr. Benavides’s death sentence and first-degree murder conviction had to be vacated, her office still argued that the defendant deserved a second-degree murder conviction. (Note: Green was hired into the Kern County DA’s office in 1983, the same year Jagels took over, and she worked under Jagels for his entire two-and-a-half decade career as DA.) The California Supreme Court sagely “decline[d] to posit a radically different trial than the one petitioner received . . . .” The prosecution’s willingness to preserve a conviction on an entirely different theory than the one it pursued at trial reveals an intent to maintain convictions rather than promote fairness.
It would be easy to read the Benavides opinion and assume that an ill-qualified or misguided pathologist deserves all of the blame for wrongly putting an innocent man on death row. Too easy. In the circumstances presented, the Kern County District Attorney’s office has a great deal for which to answer.