A Kern County Superior Court judge last week ordered that a 68-year-old former farmworker, Vicente Benavides Figueroa, be released from San Quentin’s death row after the local district attorney declared she would not retry him. Benavides had been in prison for more than 25 years after being convicted of raping, sodomizing and murdering his girlfriend’s 21-month-old daughter.
Benavides was freed after all but one of the medical experts who testified against him recanted their conclusions that the girl had, in effect, been raped to death — conclusions they had reached after reviewing incomplete medical records. In fact, the first nurses and doctors who examined the semiconscious and battered girl in 1991 observed no injuries suggesting she had been raped or sodomized, but those details were not passed along to the medical expert witnesses who testified in court. Injuries later observed at two other hospitals were likely caused by that first effort to save her life, which included attempts to insert an adult-sized catheter.
Convicting Benavides was an egregious miscarriage of justice; he spent a quarter-century on death row for a crime he apparently did not commit. His exoneration serves as a reminder of what ought to be abundantly clear by now: that despite jury trials, appellate reconsideration and years of motions and counter-motions, the justice system is not infallible, and it is possible (or perhaps inevitable) that innocent people will end up facing execution at the hands of the state. Not all of them will be saved, as Benavides was.
Innocent people end up facing execution at the hands of the state.
The case also ought to remind us of the dangers inherent in California’s efforts to speed up the calendar for death penalty appeals under Proposition 66, which voters approved in 2016. Moving more quickly to execute convicted death row inmates increases the likelihood that due process will be given short shrift and the innocent will be put to death. Benavides — described in court filings as a seasonal worker with intellectual disabilities — was convicted in 1993. But the records that blew up the case against Benavides, but also raised doubt that Consuelo Verdugo had been murdered at all, were not uncovered until about 2000. Proposition 66 makes it less likely that such diligent research can be completed in the single year it gives appellate attorneys to file their cases (a process that currently consumes three years or more), and thus more likely that innocent people will be put to death.
This rush-to-execute mood isn’t California’s alone. Florida adopted its own speed-up legislation five years ago. And around the country, pro-death penalty advocates argue that the condemned take advantage of the appeals process to delay their executions. Federal statistics for 2013, the last year available, show an average of 15 1/2 years between sentence and execution for people on death row in the U.S. At least 365 people have been on California’s death row for 20 years or more.
Benavides was released after more than 25 years. Two half-brothers in North Carolina spent about 30 years under death sentences before they were exonerated. Since the Supreme Court revived the death penalty in 1976, more than 150 people have been exonerated of the murders for which they were condemned (in most cases that also meant the real killers got away with it), with an average of more than 11 years between sentence and exoneration. A 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that at least 4% of the people sitting on America’s death rows are probably innocent. With a national death row population of 2,700 people, that means more than 100 people currently under death sentences probably are innocent — about 30 of them in California. A rush to execution will only increase the chances that state governments will execute the innocent in the name of the people.
The unfixable problem with the death penalty is that mistakes get made, witnesses lie, confessions get coerced — all factors that can lead to false convictions. It is abjectly immoral to speed things up by limiting due process. The better solution is to get rid of the death penalty altogether.