Op-Ed: My innocent client spent 25 years on death row. How long will it take to realize our system is broken?
What ails our criminal justice system? Defense attorney Dean Strang, made famous in the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer,” says it’s a “tragic lack of humility” and an “unwarranted certitude on the part of police officers and prosecutors and defense lawyers and judges and jurors that they’re getting it right.”
Strang’s diagnosis was confirmed in California two weeks ago, when my client Vicente Benavides walked out of San Quentin prison, exonerated after languishing on death row for more than a quarter-century. This was a victory for justice, but no one should take Benavides’ release as an indication that the system works in California better than anywhere else.
In 1993, Benavides was sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit: sexually assaulting his girlfriend’s 21-month-old daughter so violently that she died. He always maintained his innocence. He had no prior criminal history, no history of violence or sexual deviance. By everyone’s account, he had always been kind and caring toward the child and others.
Nonetheless, he was convicted based on the testimony of several doctors who confidently concluded that the child had been sexually abused. One doctor testified that he believed it “without a doubt,” claiming that this was the worst case of child sexual abuse he had ever seen. Another doctor showed the jury how he believed Benavides sodomized the child while she was sitting on his lap. A third doctor told the jurors the child had been repeatedly sodomized. After viewing the graphic photos of the child’s genitalia purportedly showing the effects of the abuse, the last holdout juror voted to condemn Benavides to death.
Benavides is the fifth death row inmate to be exonerated in California.
When my colleagues and I at the Habeas Corpus Resource Center were appointed to represent Benavides in 1999, he already had been on death row for six years. We began by obtaining every piece of paper related to the child’s medical treatment during the eight days she spent at three hospitals before she succumbed to her injuries. We tracked down the doctors who had testified and showed them the complete medical records, which they had not seen before they took the witness stand. These records unequivocally showed that the child had no signs of sexual abuse when she was admitted to the emergency room of the first hospital. The records also showed that the injuries observed at the second and third hospital, that were in the photographs shown to jurors, likely resulted from medical procedures undertaken in the emergency room of the first hospital and the child’s deteriorating medical condition.
The doctors who previously had been so certain about their diagnosis realized they had made a grave mistake. They recanted their testimony. The prosecution’s star witness, a child abuse pediatrician, proclaimed that the case was a “tremendous failing of the criminal justice system.”
In March, the California Supreme Court unanimously reversed Benavides’ conviction, finding that the false evidence presented at his trial was “extensive, pervasive and impactful.” At oral argument, Justice Carol A. Corrigan, who is a former prosecutor, said the case was among the most “hair-raising false evidence” cases she had ever encountered. On April 19, prosecutors dismissed all charges and Benavides was released.
Benavides, 42 at the time of his conviction, is now 68. He can never regain the years he lost.
If Proposition 66 had been in place during his appeal, Benavides may well have been executed rather than exonerated. That law, which accelerates the death penalty review process and lowers the qualifications for defense attorneys, was passed by 51% of California voters in November 2016.
It took us almost two decades of unrelenting effort to overcome the “unwarranted certitude” of the police, the prosecutors and the medical experts in Benavides’ case. The state attorney general did not admit the conviction was based on false evidence until 2015, even though we had presented proof that the testimony was false over a decade earlier.
Without providing sufficient time to adequately investigate capital cases, as well as additional resources to defense attorneys and the courts, Proposition 66 will not fix California’s dysfunctional death penalty system. According to the bipartisan California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, there are only two possible solutions: Provide almost $100 million more in funding a year to ensure that the system is fair, or eliminate the death penalty.
In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown blithely dismissed the possibility that innocent people have been sentenced to death in California. He said, “I know people say, ‘Oh, there have been all these innocent people.’ Well, I have not seen one name on death row that’s been told to me.”
He has been told one now. Benavides is, in fact, the fifth death row inmate to be exonerated in California.
Brown and the California Supreme Court should commute all death row sentences before the governor’s term ends in January. They can no longer share in the unwarranted certitude that the criminal justice system is infallible.
Cristina Bordé is a former Habeas Corpus Resource Center attorney for Vicente Benavides. She currently is the director of the Wisconsin Latino Exoneration Program at the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
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