California Court Vacates Death Row Conviction of Vicente Benavides

After spending 26 long years on California’s death row, Vicente Benavides has been freed. Benavides was on death row for allegedly raping and killing a 21-month-old child back in 1993. Despite his sentence, Benavides maintained that he was innocent of any wrongdoing and pursued all avenues for appeal. In March, the Supreme Court of California overturned his conviction, citing reliance on false evidence at his trial.

Benavides’ Alleged Crime

According to reports, Benavides was watching his girlfriend’s young daughter and rushed her to the hospital with severe injuries. When pressed about the cause of the injuries, Benavides explained that the girl had run full-steam into a door.

The girl received treatment at three different hospitals before succumbing to her injuries. Benavides was arrested and charged with sexual assault and first-degree murder, based on the testimony of medical professionals that had reportedly examined and treated the young girl at the second and third hospitals.

Contradictory Medical Testimony

At trial, state prosecutors introduced the testimony of forensic pathologist Dr. James Diblin, who had reportedly reviewed the girl’s medical and autopsy results. Diblin explained that the girl suffered many injuries from squeezing that likely occurred during a sexual assault and died as a result of “blunt force penetrating injury of the anus.” This testimony, given by a respected and renowned pathologist, was enough to send Benavides to death row.

It became clear right away, though, that Diblin’s testimony was shaky, at best. During post-conviction proceedings, the defense presented testimony from Dr. Astrid Heger, a leading expert on child abuse, that directly contradicted Diblin’s assessment. Heger, who had reviewed the girl’s records, explained that it was “absurd” to think that the girl had been assaulted or raped. In fact, the girl’s injuries were more indicative of blunt force trauma that results from a car accident, which was the cause reported by Benavides in the first place. Despite these contradictory statements, Benavides was still sentenced to death.

Vacating Murder Charges

While on death row, Benavides continued to maintain that he was innocent of all wrongdoing. His defense utilized the appeals process and continued to argue that Benavides was wrongfully convicted because of false medical testimony. It was not until his appeal reached the Supreme Court of California that Benavides was victorious.

During an appeal, prosecutors admitted that the forensic evidence used to convict Benavides was false. In fact, many of the doctors who had initially testified that the girl was sexually assaulted admitted to have never even reviewing the girls’ medical records. However, the state asked the court to sustain a conviction for second-degree murder. The court declined this request and explained that the “extensive, pervasive and impactful” forensic testimony left the state with no proof that Benavides was guilty of such a crime.

Instead, the court vacated the conviction and sentence, putting the ball back in the state’s court. When a conviction is vacated, it’s as if the initial trial never even happened. As a result, the state has a few options. They can decide to retry the matter, try to negotiate a plea bargain, or simply drop the case. The state has declined to retry Benavides for second-degree murder, citing a lack of evidence to support their case. Instead, Benavides is now a free man.

Life After Death Row

Not everyone who is convicted of capital offense and sent to death row is guilty. In fact, research shows that 4 percent of people sent to death row are actually innocent. Benavides is actually the 162nd person to be exonerated from death row since 1973.

Adjusting to life after death row can be difficult. State law provides that all exonerated defendants have the right to receive job training, counseling, education, and financial support from the state to get back on their feet. Benavides’ family and legal team have also taken steps to help him integrate back into society.

Most notably, they’ve launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help him “rebuild his entire life.” The request for donations notes that Benavides is now 68 years old but has “no savings, health insurance, social security, or retirement.” While the state will offer some support, it will likely on be enough to cover the “basic necessities.”

Today, Benavides is reunited with his family who never once stopped supporting him as he spent more than one-third of his life on death row for a crime he did not commit.

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