EDITORIAL: California Exoneration Shows Why Death Penalty Needs to End

In an April 27 editorial, the Los Angeles Times said the death penalty should come to an end and the recent exoneration of California death-row prisoner Vicente Benavides Figueroa illustrates why. Benavides — an intellectually disabled Mexican national who was working as a seasonal farm worker — spent more than 25 years on death row after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death on charges of raping, sodomizing, and murdering his girlfriend's 21-month-old daughter. His conviction rested on extensive false forensic testimony provided by prosecution medical witnesses who had been given incomplete hospital records and who erroneously testified that the child had been sexually assaulted. One California Supreme Court justice described that testimony as “among the most hair-raising false evidence that I’ve encountered in all the time that I’ve been looking at criminal cases.” The Times called Benavides's conviction "an egregious miscarriage of justice" and said "[h]is 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." Benavides's case was prosecuted in Kern County during the administration of long-time District Attorney Ed Jagels. Elected multiple times to head the California District Attorneys Association, Jagels successfully pushed to remove three justices from the California Supreme Court whom he claimed were anti-death-penalty. His official Web page as district attorney touted that Kern had the highest per-capita imprisonment rate of any county in state, and as of January 1, 2013, the county had more people on its death row than were sentenced to death in more than 99% of U.S. counties. The county also has the highest per capita exoneration rate in the state. Benavides is reportedly the 26th innocent person wrongly convicted by Kern County prosecutors, most of whom were wrongly convicted as a result of official misconduct. As of March 2015, 22 of the 24 Kern County exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations had involved official misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials. Benavides's exoneration, the Times said, is also a reminder "of the dangers inherent in California's efforts to speed up the calendar for death penalty appeals under Proposition 66 .... 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." The records that showed 21-month-old Consuelo Verdugo had not been sexually assaulted — and that cast doubt on whether she had been murdered at all — were not discovered until 7 years after trial. The one year that Proposition 66 gives appellate lawyers to investigate cases and file appeals makes it less likely that they will discover such evidence "and thus more likely that innocent people will be put to death." Washington Post columnist Radley Balko put it more starkly: "if Prop 66 had been in place when Mr. Benavides was convicted, he’d almost certainly be dead. He’d never have lived to see his exoneration." Balko notes that "[t]his problem isn’t just limited to California. Even as we learn more about the extent of wrongful convictions, prosecutor misconduct and misuse of forensic evidence, states such as Texas, Alabama and Florida have also moved toward limiting appeals and speeding up executions." He says "[i]t's almost as if some lawmakers and law enforcement officials think that the problem with wrongful convictions isn’t that there are too many of them, but that they’re bad PR for the law-and-order cause. And that the best way to make them go away isn’t to fix the problems that allowed them to happen, but to execute people before we ever get the chance to learn that they’re innocent." But the problems, the Times editors said, may be beyond repair. "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," the editors conclude, "is to get rid of the death penalty altogether."

(Editorial, The latest California death row exoneration shows why we need to end the death penalty, Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2018; Radley Balko, The Watch: As California moves to speed up executions, a man is exonerated after 25 years on death row, The Washington Post, April 30, 2018; CA: Prosecutor’s Fabrication is Tip of the Iceberg When It Comes to Government Misconduct in Kern County, The Open File, March 9, 2015.) See Editorials and Innocence.