California

California

Vicente Benavides, Sentenced to Death by False Forensics, to Be Freed After 26 Years on Death Row

Mexican national Vicente Figueroa Benavides (pictured), wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in Kern County, California for supposedly raping, sodomizing, and murdering his girlfriend’s 21-month-old daughter, will soon be freed after nearly 26 years on death row. He will be the 162nd person and fifth foreign national exonerated from a U.S. death row since 1973. In a media advisory on April 17, 2018, Kern District Attorney Lisa Green announced on April 17, 2018 that her office would be dropping all charges against Benavides, one month after the California Supreme Court vacated the former farmworker’s convictions for sexually assaulting and murdering Consuelo Verdugo, which the court called a product of “extensive,” “pervasive,” “impactful,” and “false” forensic testimony. The girl, the court said, had never been sexually assaulted and may actually have died from being hit by a car. At trial, the prosecution presented testimony from forensic pathologist Dr. James Diblin, who told the jury that Consuelo had died from “blunt force penetrating injury of the anus” and claimed that many of her internal injuries were the result of rape. He further testified that arm injuries, other internal trauma, dilated pupils, and compression rib fractures she had sustained had been “caused by tight squeezing during a sexual assault.” During post-conviction proceedings, Benavides’s lawyers presented evidence from Dr. Astrid Heger, one of the country’s leading experts on child abuse, debunking Diblin’s false testimony. Dr. Heger described Diblin’s assertion that Consuelo’s injuries had been the product of sexual assault as “so unlikely to the point of being absurd. … No such mechanism of injury has ever been reported in any literature of child abuse or child assault.” Rather, she said, the internal injuries Consuelo sustained were commonly seen in victims of automobile accidents. Hospital records and witness statements obtained by Benavides’s appeal lawyers also undermined Diblin’s false testimony. Records showed that the examining physicians from Consuelo’s initial hospitalization had not seen any signs of bleeding when she was brought to the emergency room, and a nurse who helped treat Consuelo reported that neither she nor any of her colleagues had seen evidence of anal or vaginal trauma when the child arrived. Indeed, the court said, the medical records showed that the injuries to Consuelo’s genitalia and anus that Diblin had claimed were evidence of sexual assault were actually “attribut[able] to medical intervention,” including repeated failed efforts to insert a catheter and the improper use of an adult-sized catheter on the small child. Associate Justice Carol Corrigan—a former prosecutor—described the forensic testimony that Benavides had brutally raped and anally sodomized Consuelo as “among the most hair-raising false evidence that I’ve encountered in all the time that I’ve been looking at criminal cases.” On appeal, prosecutors admitted that the forensic evidence they used to convict Benavides was false, but asked the state court to sustain a conviction for second-degree murder. Even after agreeing on April 17, 2018 to drop all charges, District Attorney Green refused to concede that Benavides was innocent of murder. “[I]t doesn’t mean he’s innocent of the physical child abuse,” she said. “My decision not to retry the case is not the same as a finding of factual innocence[.] I'm not stating in any way that he’s factually innocent of the death of the child.” At least ten men and women have been exonerated from death rows across the United States after having been wrongly convicted for killing a child. In the cases of Rodricus Crawford and Sabrina Butler, the medical evidence also showed that no crime had occurred, but the defendants were convicted based on false forensic testimony. Benavides is the fourth person exonerated from California’s death row since 1980. A California prison spokesperson said he is expected the be freed “within a few days,” as soon as the Kern County court orders his release. [UPDATE: The court formally dismissed all charges against Mr. Benavides and he was released on April 19, 2018.]

California Supreme Court Grants New Trial to Man Sent to Death Row 25 Years Ago by False Forensic Evidence

The California Supreme Court has vacated the conviction of Vicente Figueroa Benavides (pictured), saying that the forensic evidence that sent the former Mexican farmworker to death row 25 years ago was “extensive,” “pervasive,” “impactful,” and “false.” Benavides, now 68, was sentenced to death in 1993 after being found guilty of brutally murdering Consuelo Verdugo, his girlfriend’s 21-month-old toddler, by raping and anally sodomizing her. However, the court said, medical evidence showed that the girl was never raped or sodomized and may not have been murdered at all. Instead, she may have died from complications from having been struck by a car. Benavides—whose lawyers have argued is developmentally disabled and possesses the mental ability of a 7-year-old—told the police and jury during the trial that he lost track of the toddler while he was preparing dinner on November 17, 1991 and he found her outdoors, vomiting. Consuelo’s mother took her to a local medical center that evening, where her condition worsened. After surgery and two hospital transfers, the child died a week later. At trial, forensic pathologist Dr. James Diblin testified that the toddler had died from “blunt force penetrating injury of the anus” and claimed that the major internal injuries she suffered were the result of rape. He further testified that arm injuries, internal trauma, dilated pupils, and compression rib fractures that Consuelo sustained had been “caused by tight squeezing during a sexual assault.” Dr. Jess Diamond, who evaluated the toddler at Kern Medical Center, also initially testified that the baby had been raped. However, medical records obtained by Benavides’s post-conviction lawyers showed that the examining physicians had not seen any signs of bleeding when Consuelo was brought to the hospital, and a nurse who helped treat the toddler said that neither she nor any of her colleagues saw evidence of anal or vaginal trauma when the child arrived. Instead, the court said, the injuries to Consuelo’s genitalia and anus were “attribut[able] to medical intervention,” including repeated failed efforts to insert a catheter and the improper use of an adult-sized catheter on the small child. “After reviewing the medical records and photographs that I should have been provided in 1993,” Dr. Diamond withdrew his assessment that Consuelo had been raped. “I am convinced that this case presents a tremendous failing of the criminal justice system," he said. The defense also presented evidence from Dr. Astrid Heger, one of the country’s leading experts on child abuse, who described Dr. Didbin’s assertion that Consuelo’s injuries had been the product of sexual assault as “so unlikely to the point of being absurd. … No such mechanism of injury has ever been reported in any literature of child abuse or child assault.” She said the internal injuries the child sustained were commonly seen in victims of automobile accidents. During oral argument, Associate Justice Carol Corrigan, a former prosecutor, described Dibdin's testimony as being “among the most hair-raising false evidence that I’ve encountered in all the time that I’ve been looking at criminal cases." Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye compared the sexual assault allegations to “a bomb dropped on the jury” that prevented the jurors from considering the evidence that the toddler may have been hit by a car. Prosecutors admitted that the forensic evidence they used to convict Benavides was false, but asked the state court to sustain a conviction for second-degree murder. With its key evidence discredited, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green said it was improbable that prosecutors would attempt to retry Benavides. If the charges are dismissed, Benavides would be the fourth California death-row prisoner to be exonerated since the state brought back the death penalty in 1974.

Is Racially Biased Testimony Wrongly Subjecting Intellectually Disabled Defendants to the Death Penalty?

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia categorically bars states from executing any person who has Intellectual Disability. (Daryl Atkins is pictured.) However, as reported in recent stories in Pacific Standard Magazine and the newspaper, The Atlanta Black Star, some states have attempted to circumvent the Atkins ruling by using social stereotypes and race as grounds to argue that defendants of color are not intellectually disabled. Prosecutors in at least eight states have presented opinions from expert witnesses that "ethnic adjustments" should be applied to IQ tests and tests of adaptive functioning that would deny an intellectual disability diagnosis to Black or Latino defendants who, if they were White, would be considered intellectually disabled and ineligible for the death penalty. "Ethnic adjustments" typically take one of two forms. One adjustment purports to compensate for perceived racial bias in IQ testing by boosting the defendant's IQ scores. A second form of adjustment is determining, based upon the expert witness's subjective views about a defendant's social conditions and culture, that impairments in day-to-day functioning that would be considered adaptive deficits for White defendants are not as rare for a person with the defendant's racial, ethnic, and socio-economic background, and so are not evidence of intellectual disability. Robert M. Sanger, a trial lawyer and professor of law and forensic science at Santa Barbara College of Law in California who wrote the 2015 law review article IQ, Intelligence Tests, 'Ethnic Adjustments' and Atkins called the use of these adjustments "outrageous." “What these so-called experts do," Sanger says, "is say that, because people of color are not as likely to score as well on IQ tests, you should, therefore, increase their IQ scores from 5 to 15 points to make up for some unknown or undescribed problem in the test.” Sanger has documented the use of ethnic adjustments by prosecutors in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. “The idea of racially classifying a person and then using 'ethnic adjustments' to increase his or her IQ score, thereby qualifying that person for execution, is logically, clinically, and constitutionally unsound,” Sanger wrote. IQ scores, he says, are affected by a variety of  environmental factors "such as childhood abuse, poverty, stress, and trauma[, that] can cause decreases in actual IQ scores." Because people who experience these environmental factors "disproportionately populate death row, ethnic adjustments make it more likely that individuals who are actually intellectually disabled will be put to death." Moreover, the courts have repeatedly rejected the adjusting of test scores on the basis of race in cases that would benefit racial minorities, Sanger said, most prominently in cases in which African-American applicants for police or firefighting jobs had alleged that cities were using racially discriminatory tests. Sanger says "it’s sort of outrageous that you can adjust scores upward so you can be killed, but not so you can get a job.” In 2011, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists reprimanded psychologist Dr. George Denkowski for his misuse of ethnic adjustments in death-penalty cases. As part of an agreement dismissing disciplinary charges against him, Denkowski—who testified against sixteen Texas death-row prisoners, several of whom have been executed—was fined $5,500 and agreed that he would never again conduct intellectual disability evaluations in criminal cases. On January 4, 2018, Philadelphia prosecutors, who had used Denkowski's ethnic adjustments as part their argument that Pennsylvania death-row prisoner Jose DeJesus was not intellectually disabled, agreed that DeJesus should be resentenced to life. Ethnic adjustments are only some of the non-scientific barriers states have erected to avoid compliance with Atkins. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. Florida that Florida had unconstitutionally emplyed an IQ cut-off score to reject claims of intellectual disability. In 2017, in Moore v. Texas, the court rejected the state's use of a set of unscientific lay stereotypes to claim that a defendant did not have the adaptive deficits necessary to be considered intellectually disabled. The Court called Texas's approach an "outlier" that, "[b]y design and in operation, ... create[s] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed." Moore reiterated that a court’s determination of intellectual disability in a death-penalty case must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework."

DPIC Year End Report: New Death Sentences Demonstrate Increasing Geographic Isolation

Nearly one-third (31%) of the 39 new death sentences imposed in the United States in 2017 came from just three counties, Riverside, California; Clark, Nevada; and Maricopa, Arizona, according to statistics compiled for DPIC's annual year end report. In a press release accompanying the annual report, DPIC said that the year's sentences reflect "the increasing geographic isolation and arbitrary nature of the death penalty." Riverside imposed five death sentences in 2017, Clark four, and Maricopa three, and no other county imposed as many as two. The other 3,140 counties and parishes in the country imposed 27 new death sentences, fewer than the record low total of death sentences imposed in the country last year. These three counties were featured in a 2016 report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project of the most prolific death sentencing counties in the country. That report found that the death penalty high-use counties tended to share "a history of overzealous prosecutions, inadequate defense lawyering, and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion," among other criminal justice issues. In a recent article about DPIC's year end report published in the Desert Sun, Dunham said, "You don’t see counties that overproduce death penalties and are model citizens in the administration of justice as a whole." Current Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin told the paper that he “strenuously” objected to that characterization, which he called "a bunch of nonsense." Riverside County Public Defender Steven Harmon said that while the county has historically overused the death penalty, Hestrin, who took office in 2015, "has taken a far more measured approach to deciding in which cases he should seek the death penalty.” The Desert Sun reported in 2016 "an astronomical rise in wiretaps" in Riverside county that was "so vast it once accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps," including triple the number issued by any other state or federal jurisdiction in 2014. Riverside police ranked 9th in the nation in killings of civilians. 76% of those sentenced to death in Riverside between 2010 and 2015 were defendants of color, and during that time frame it imposed death sentences at a rate that was 9 times greater per homicide than the rest of the state. All six defendants sentenced to death in Riverside in 2016 or 2017 were black or Latino. Riverside has imposed more death sentences than any other county in the country over the last five years, and 2017 was the second time in the last three years that it sentenced more people to death than any other county. Its five death sentences constituted 45% of the death sentences imposed in California this year, and more than were imposed by any other state. Four other southern California counties (Los Angeles, Kern, Orange, and San Bernardino) are also among the ten most prolific death sentencers in the past five years, and the region has been dubbed "the buckle of a new death belt." Riverside County alone has imposed 8.5% of all new death sentences in the country since 2013, and the five-county "death belt" has imposed 21.8%. By contrast, Harris County, Texas, which has executed more people than any other county, produced no executions or death sentences this year. Only 15% of all counties in the U.S. have ever imposed a death sentence that resulted in an execution. (Click image to enlarge.)

California Supreme Court Upholds, But Limits, Initiative to Speed Up Death-Penalty Appeals

In a 5-2 decision that left both proponents and opponents of the death penalty declaring victory, the Supreme Court of California has upheld the constitutionality of Proposition 66, a voter initiative intended to speed up death-penalty appeals and executions, but severely limited the scope of its core provisions. In Briggs v. Brown, the court on August 24 sustained portions of the measure that shifted which court will hear capital cases, increased the pool of death-penalty appeal lawyers by requiring lawyers who accept other appellate appointments to also take capital cases, eliminated public review of execution methods, and limited both the issues that can be raised in capital habeas appeals and the time courts have to decide them. However, the majority ruled that the measure’s flagship provision—a five-year deadline on appeals by condemned prisoners—was "directive, rather than mandatory"; that "courts must make individualized decisions based on the circumstances of each case"; and that "prisoners may seek to challenge [the time limitations and limitation on the claims they are permitted to raise] in the context of their individual cases." Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, who argued in support of Proposition 66 in the California Supreme Court, lauded the decision, saying that "Proposition 66 will go into effect almost entirely as written." He called the time limits for deciding appeals a “minor part” of the proposition. Scheidegger said "Californians finally have a chance to see justice carried out in the very worst murder cases." Death penalty opponents sharply disagreed with his characterization. Ana Zamora, criminal justice policy director for the ACLU of Northern California, said “Today’s decision changes nothing. The fact remains that California has not carried out an execution in over 10 years and executions will not resume any time soon.” Christina Von der Ahe Rayburn, who argued the case against the proposition, said the ruling had rendered the deadlines in Proposition 66 "toothless," allowing courts to continue to perform their "critical role in carefully reviewing the appeals of the state's death row inmates, in order to avoid the execution of an innocent person." The justices questioned the efficacy of the proposition and whether it could accomplish its stated aims. "We do not consider or weigh the economic or social wisdom or general propriety of the initiative," the court wrote. "It remains to be seen how effective the procedures enacted by Proposition 66 will be in expediting the capital posttrial review process." Justice Goodwin Liu, concurring in the court's decision, wrote "I find it stunning that Proposition 66’s proponents and the Attorney General claim that the voters intended the five-year limit to be nonbinding or aspirational when that claim is plainly belied by the ballot materials and advocacy campaign for Proposition 66." He said “Proposition 66 contains no plan to compress into five years a process that often takes two decades, and no entity – not this court, not the Judicial Council, not the Legislature – can simply wave a magic wand and make it so.” Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen, who served as executive director of a state senate commission that undertook a comprehensive review of the state's death penalty in 2008, said several of the provisions in Proposition 66 may actually increase delays in deciding death penalty cases. “It is just going to boggle up the system even more,” he said.

California Court Bars Death Penalty in Mass Killing Because of "Unprecedented" Government Misconduct

Citing "relentless non-compliance" with court orders and "chronic obstructionism" by a prosecution team it says "has effectively compromised" Scott Dekraai's rights to due process and a fair penalty trial, a California trial court has barred prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty in the worst mass killing in Orange County history. In a scathing opinion on August 18, Judge Thomas M. Goethals (pictured)—who had disqualified the entire Orange County District Attorney's office from the case as a result of earlier misconduct and lying to the court about a decades-long practice of using jailhouse informants to violate defendant's constitutional rights—wrote that in light of continued "indolence and obfuscation" from the Orange County Sheriff's Department in response to orders seeking information on the informant scandal, the court had "lost confidence that it can ever secure compliance" by the prosecution with future court orders in the case. Given the "unprecedented" nature of the government misconduct, Judge Goethals wrote, it would "be unconscionable, perhaps even cowardly," for the court not to take remedial action by barring the death penalty. Judge Goethals addressed the emotional toll on the victims' families created by the need to conduct four years of court proceedings investigating the scandal. He said the court would "do what little it can to mitigate their suffering" by imposing eight consecutive life sentences "that will end this case now and insure that this defendant dies a forgotten man in some obscure maximum security prison." Family members in the courtroom expressed anger at county prosecutors. Butch Fournier, whose sister Michelle, Dekraai’s ex-wife, was one of the eight victims, said, "It’s been six years for nothing. ... They caused us pain and suffering that was unnecessary. It was a cut-and-dry case." Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer—a former prosecutor who is considered a likely candidate for District Attorney next year—called on District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to resign, saying the conduct of the District Attorney's and Sheriff's offices had been "reprehensible" and constituted an "egregious assault on our criminal justice system." In a statement, Spitzer wrote: "I am appalled that the misconduct of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, in collusion with the OC Sheriff’s Department, resulted in this miscarriage of justice. I am incredulous that the Orange County criminal justice system has earned a national reputation for corruption that will take years, if not decades, to repair. Fundamental changes are needed." The editorial board of the Orange County Register said "the fact that a death sentence couldn’t even be secured for an admitted mass murderer speaks to the level of dysfunction within the county’s criminal justice system." The Orange County District Attorney's office was named in a July 2017 report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project as one of the prosecuting offices cited for repeated prosecutorial misconduct.

Report Finds High Levels of Misconduct in Four Top Death Sentencing Counties

Four counties that rank among the most aggressive users of capital punishment in the United States have prolonged patterns of prosecutorial misconduct, according to a new report by the Harvard-based Fair Punishment Project. The report, "The Recidivists: Four Prosecutors Who Repeatedly Violate the Constitution," examined state appellate court decisions in California, Louisiana, Missouri, and Tennessee from 2010-2015, and found that prosecutors in Orange County, CAOrleans Parish, LASt. Louis City, MO; and Shelby County, TN—all of which currently face allegations of significant misconduct—ranked among the most prolific perpetrators of misconduct in their respective states. Orange and Shelby counties ranked 7th and 13th among the 2% of counties responsible for a majority of death-row prisoners in the U.S. as of January 2013, each having more individuals on their death rows than 99.5% of all counties in the country. In the midst of a scandal on an illegal, multi-decade practice of placing informants next to targeted prisoners to attempt to extract confessions from them, Orange County imposed more death sentences from 2010-2015 than all but five other U.S. counties. St. Louis City ranked 10th in executions from 1976-2012, and Orleans Parish has long been known for its prosecutors' failures to disclose exculpatory evidence to capital defendants, including three cases that have been the subjects of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. The statewide misconduct rankings produced by the Fair Punishment Project show that these counties are outliers not only in their heavy use of the death penalty, but also in their patterns of prosecutorial misconduct. Among the types of misconduct found by appellate courts were withholding exculpatory evidence, improper arguments at trial, and hiding deals and favorable treatment offered to informants in exchange for their testimony. In one case from St. Louis, prosecutors: suppressed evidence in the death-penalty trial of Reginald Clemons that would have supported Clemons' claim that he confessed only after having been beaten by police; never disclosed the existence of a rape kit that could have identified the perpetrator; and presented testimony in a co-defendant's trial that another person had committed acts attributed to Clemons at his trial. Longtime prosecutor Nels Moss, Jr. also advised police officers to omit certain observations that were initially included in their reports. Clemons was convicted and sentenced to death, but was awarded a new trial—scheduled for 2018—because of this misconduct.

Sheriff Admits Improper "Activity" in Orange County, California Snitch Scandal

Orange County, California Sheriff Sandra Hutchens appeared before Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals (pictured) on July 5 to explain her department's 4-1/2-year failure to comply with court orders directing the department to produce documents related to a multi-decade practice in the county of misusing prison informants to illegally obtain incriminating statements from accused defendants. In May 2015, Judge Goethals barred the entire Orange County District Attorney's office from participating in the sentencing of Scott Dekraai—who has pleaded guilty to eight killings in a Seal Beach salon in 2011—for withholding evidence about the informant program and lying about its existence. Hutchens—who was appointed sheriff in 2008 following the conviction of the prior sheriff on corruption charges—denied that her office had systemically housed informants with targeted defendants, calling the description of the office's practice “a matter of semantics." “There is no program, per se,” she said. “There is activity.” Deflecting responsibility for the illegal questioning of defendants by informants and the destruction of logs describing the informant program, Hutchens said “There may have been a few deputies who took their duties to different levels than were authorized.” She explained her department's failure to turn over documents whose production had been ordered by the court by saying of her subordinates, “They possibly did not look hard enough.” Hutchens testimony came a week after Sheriff's Deputy Jonathan Larson testified that officers in the Sheriff's Department's Special Handling Unit had been tasked with developing snitches and intentionally placing them near pretrial prisoners to obtain confessions. Larson said he had "assumed" the practice was allowable because it was "approved by our sergeants and lieutenants." Larson also testified that he was certain he had made entries in the Special Handling Unit's log during a four-month period in 2011 that is now missing from the record. Lieutenant Mike McHenry had previously testified that perhaps all of the deputies in the unit simply forgot to make entries during that period. Orange County was one of the 6 most prolific producers of death sentences in the U.S. from 2010 to 2015, a period included in Judge Goethals' investigation into misconduct by the Sheriff's Office and the District Attorney's Office. The sentencing of Dekraai, which brought the informant scandal to light, is now being handled by the California Attorney General's Office, which intends to continue pursuing the death penalty. Bethany Webb, whose sister, Laura Webb-Elody, was allegedly killed by Dekraai, wrote an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times opposing the death penalty in the case. "Over and over again, the authorities have tried to bring families closure through the death penalty, but have succeeded only in keeping old wounds open," she wrote. "Through these painful years, it’s become clear that personal and political ambition have so corrupted the death penalty process that it does not serve us, nor does it serve the interests of justice."

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