Mary Kate DeLucco


April 19, 2018 (San Francisco) — Today, Vicente Benavides walked out of San Quentin State Prison a free man, after 25 years on death row for a conviction based on false evidence. It is the first time in recent memory that a prisoner has been released from California’s death row, which, with 745 prisoners, is the largest death row in the country.

In 1993, Benavides, now 68, was convicted of killing and sexually assaulting 21-month old Consuelo Verdugo, the daughter of his girlfriend, Estella Medina. Benavides and Medina brought the girl to the emergency room in November 1991, reporting that she had been chasing her older sister when she ran into a door at full speed. She was treated for internal injuries, and subsequently was transferred to two more hospitals before dying eight days later.

Benavides, who has always maintained his innocence, was charged with her sexual assault and murder, based on medical 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 overturned his conviction ruling that prosecutors had relied on false evidence from the physicians who had treated her. The medical evidence presented at Benavides’ trial purportedly showing the child’s sexual trauma was, the Supreme Court ruled, “false, extensive, pervasive, and impactful.”

This week, the Kern County District Attorney’s office announced it would not retry him, and today Benavides walked out of San Quentin Prison.

“It is both inspiring and heartbreaking to see what happened to this man,” says Death Penalty Focus President Mike Farrell. “Had it not been for the tireless work of investigators and the attorneys at the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, Mr. Benavides could have been executed. It’s heartbreaking that he lost a quarter century of his life due to false evidence, but at least he can walk off of death row as a free man.” Farrell added, “This case is not a one-off. We know that California’s death penalty system is a costly, broken failure, and it’s horrifying to know that we will execute innocent people as long as the death penalty remains an option.”

His case shows how easily false evidence can be admitted into capital trials, and how long it can take to correct errors.

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that at least four percent of people sentenced to death are wrongfully convicted, which indicates it is highly unlikely that Benavides’ case is unique, especially in a death row population as large as that in California.

“This case really shows us how frightening the death penalty is,” says Franky Carrillo, an exoneree who serves on the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus. “I was also sent to prison based on false evidence, and I spent 20 years behind bars for a crime I did not commit.” Carrillo was convicted of a drive-by shooting in 1991 when he was 16, based on false eyewitness testimony. The witnesses later recanted, and others confessed to the crime, stating that he played no part.

“Had I been sentenced to death, I might not be here today,” Carrillo says.

It's time to end this costly, failed system.

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