When Vicente Benavides walked out of San Quentin State Prison late last month, the first prisoner in recent memory to walk off California’s death row, there was a crowd of family, friends, and supporters waiting to greet him. Among them, two women who had been envisioning this day for almost 18 years — his lawyer, Cristina Bordé, and his investigator, Mara Tobis, both of whom were assigned his case when they first began working at the Habeas Corpus Resource Center in San Francisco.
“It was beyond anything I could have imagined. It was a beautiful, sunny, gorgeous afternoon. I had always feared that when he got out it would be in the cover of darkness, something not celebratory. But this was purely celebratory, and full of tears, and emotions, and love. It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” says Tobis.
“All the superlatives apply here,” says Bordé. “I was elated, ecstatic, thrilled. It was a dream come true.”
In 1993, Benavides, now 68, was convicted of sexually assaulting and killing 21-month old Consuelo Verdugo, the daughter of his girlfriend, Estella Medina, and sentenced to death. Benavides and Medina had brought Consuelo to the emergency room in November 1991 after Benavides, who had momentarily lost sight of Consuelo while he was cooking dinner, had found her semi-unconscious, lying on the ground by the carport outside their apartment. She was treated for internal injuries, and subsequently was transferred to two more hospitals before dying eight days later.
Benavides was charged with her sexual assault and murder, based on evidence provided by medical personnel at the second and third hospitals where she was treated, and was sentenced to death.
But in March, the California Supreme Court found that that evidence of sexual assault was “false, extensive, pervasive, and impactful,” and overturned his conviction.
A few weeks later, the Kern County District Attorney’s office announced it would not retry him, and on April 19, Benavides walked out of San Quentin after 25 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.
Bordé began working on Benavides’ case in 1999, six years after Benavides had been sent to death row. He was her first death penalty client. She says it was a “complicated” case because of the medical issues involved. “It was an interesting challenge gathering all the medical records, making chronologies, consulting with experts, there was just a lot of information that had to be reviewed.”
For Tobis, who began working on the case in 2000, “It was an enormous undertaking. Not just tracking down the records, because we already had a lot of them through discovery, but we had to read them and decipher them. There was so much paper. All these handwritten notes from doctors and nurses. I had all kinds of programs to figure out medical terminology. It was painstaking going through page by page and putting it all into language that we could understand.”
She also interviewed the doctors and nurses who had examined Consuelo all those years ago. “They were generally easy to find because they’re licensed professionals,” Tobis says. “What was hard was getting access to them. On many occasions I had to walk around the hospital looking for their offices. I had to explain to secretaries why I needed to talk to the doctors. I had to convince them to schedule me into their doctor’s already busy schedules.
“I always had a big binder of Consuelo’s medical records with me so that I could talk to the doctors about her treatment, about the procedures they did and the reports they wrote. I knew the records inside and out.”
What Tobis, Bordé, and the rest of the defense team discovered was that the medical personnel who treated Consuelo at the first hospital had made clear in their notes that they had seen no signs of abuse, and when interviewed by the Kern County District Attorney’s investigators, maintained that position. But the doctors at the subsequent hospitals who testified to abuse at Benavides’ trial were never given those initial records and were not aware that what might have presented as abuse was actually the result of medical interventions the doctors in the ER had performed while trying to save Consuelo’s life.
“Those records were available, and those doctors who testified were not given those crucial records,” says Bordé. “They testified as to what records they reviewed, and the prosecutor did not give them the interviews from the DA investigators which showed very clearly there were no signs of abuse.” After being presented with the original records from the emergency room, the doctors recanted their testimony.
Tobis says she thinks at least part of the reason that there was a rush to judgment to find Benavides guilty of sexual assault and murder was because of when and where Consuelo died.
There was a “whirlwind of hysteria in the early 90s,” she says. “It was in the air in Kern County that sex abuse was everywhere. It was very easy to take this leap that there must have been sex abuse because there was an unexplained injury and a single man alone with a child.”
In the decade prior, at least 36 men and women were convicted in Kern County, accused of being part of a sex ring that molested children, and were sent to prison. Thirty-four were later cleared, two died in prison. In an interview with an ABC News affiliate in Bakersfield in 2016, a deputy district attorney said, “In Kern County in those days, you were guilty before you even went in [the police station].” The district attorney during this time was Ed Jagels, who remained in office until 2009.
Both Bordé and Tobis say no one on the team ever doubted Benavides’ innocence. And they both say not only did he always insist he was innocent, he was steadfast in his belief that he would be exonerated one day.
“He always said ‘I have faith in you, and I have faith in God,’ ” says Bordé. “He’s a remarkable person, with an extraordinary community of family and friends who have always been there for him. He had the longest visitor list at San Quentin — over 200 people. It’s a testament to the person he is.”
For Tobis, “Working on Vicente’s case, seeing the injustice in his conviction and believing so strongly in his innocence became a guiding force in my life. He was always so warm, and full of love and appreciation for our work. The experiences I had working on his case have guided me in my personal and professional life since. I am so pleased that he will now be able to live surrounded by family and friends. He is relishing the moment.”
Not surprisingly, Vicente has a lot of needs and not a lot of resources, so if you’d like to help, his supporters have set up a Gofundme page to help him rebuild his life.