Kern County death row inmate may walk free after new court ruling

FILE -- California Supreme Court overturns murder conviction of Vicente Benavides. (KBAK/KBFX photo)

A death row inmate may get a second chance at life.

Monday, the California Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction of Vicente Figueroa Benavides, saying the conviction was based on false evidence.

Benavides has been in prison for more than two decades.

In 1993, a Kern County jury found him guilty of sexually assaulting and killing a 21-month-old Consuelo Verdugo.

The murder conviction included three special circumstances of felony-murder rape, sodomy, and lewd conduct, with the "infliction of great bodily injury during those offenses."

Court documents state in response to a petition for habeas corpus relief, the judgment is now vacated in its entirety. This means Benavides may have been convicted of a crime he did not commit.

The Supreme Court noted multiple medical experts who testified at the trial have recanted their testimony.

Medical experts who previously testified that Consuelo Verdugo injuries were caused by sexual assault are backtracking from their statements.

Documents reveal some doctors were not given the little girl's full medical records or the autopsy report before taking the stand, testifying she was sexually assaulted.

After reviewing the documents in full, many medical experts said the girl was not sexually assaulted.

Court documents state after reviewing medical records, testimony and declarations, one doctor concluded that the injuries being caused by sexual assault was "'so unlikely' that it reaches the point of being absurd.”

The court wrote, "The evidence now shown to be false was extensive, pervasive, and impactful. What the jury might have concluded in its absence is an exercise in speculation."

Documents say Consuelo's mom brought her to the emergency room at Delano Regional Medical Center on Nov. 17, 1991.

According to documents, "They reported that Consuelo had been running after her older sister and hit her head on a door. Consuelo was limp and minimally responsive to external stimulation. She moved her arms and legs and withdrew from pain, but did not appear to recognize her mother."

Medical experts in Delano did not report any signs of sexual assault, according to the ruling.

The girl's condition got worse and she became comatose. According to court documents she was then taken to Kern Medical Center.

"Diagnostic surgery revealed her bowel, duodenum, and pancreas were “cracked in half,” with portions of each resting on either side of her spine. The surgeon testified these injuries could have been caused by a kick or punch to the abdomen."

After the surgery one doctor did an examination and found the injuries could be from "acute rape."

Documents show Consuelo was treated at three hospitals after she was brought to the emergency room. First at Delano Regional Medical Center, Kern Medical Center and then UCLA medical center. She dies 8 days later, on Nov. 25, 1991.

According to court documents, "contrary to trial evidence, Consuelo showed no signs of sexual assault when examined at DRMC, the first hospital where she received care. Her injuries can instead be attributed to medical intervention, including repeated failed efforts to insert a catheter."

Court documents said, "There is extensive evidence that Consuelo suffered profound injuries while in his care. But, in the absence of sexual assault, how those injuries might have been caused, and any motive for their infliction is less than clear. The jury heard some evidence suggesting Consuelo could have been struck by a car. But much of that testimony was challenged by the false evidence. Defense experts were unable to explain how Consuelo could have suffered both abdominal and genital injuries, all during the short time during which petitioner was alone with the child. The jury had no opportunity to evaluate the likelihood of such an accident divorced from the specter of the false evidence."

This case now returns to the Kern County District Attorney's Office. The DA will decide if they will retry the case.

Once the Supreme Court's opinion is filed, the DA's office will have 60 days to take action.

A local criminal defense attorney said it will be very hard for the DA to retry this case and Benavides could walk free.

"The reversal puts him back where he was before trial," attorney Kyle Humphrey said. He is presumed innocent and he's entitled to a trial to determine if he did anything at all. It's going to be very difficult for them to put a case together."

Humphrey said, "No matter what you do there is going to be a cloud of suspicious as to why the particular evidence was not reviewed by the experts."

The DA's office said as of Monday they have not decided if Benavides will be retried and they plan to discuss the next steps this week.

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