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California Supreme Court Vacates Conviction and Death Sentence After Experts Recant Testimony

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of California granted a writ of habeas corpus and vacated a first-degree murder conviction and death sentence after several of the experts who testified at trial recanted their testimony over 25 years later.

Vincent Benavides was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for the supposed sexual assault that led to the death of his girlfriend’s 21-month-old daughter in 1991. At the trial, the State relied on the opinions of doctors who had treated the victim and testified that she had died of blunt-force trauma to her abdominal organs as a result of a sexual assault. Over two decades later, those doctors and other caregivers recanted their stories, and admitted that had they actually reviewed the victim’s medical records, they would have concluded she was not sexually assaulted.

Benavides offered new declarations obtained to support his petition for relief. One doctor declared that the injuries “could not have physically” been the result of sexual assault. Another doctor who earlier testified the victim died as a result of being sodomized declared, “it is now my opinion to a high degree of medical certainty” the victim was not sexually assaulted. A doctor characterized as “the pre-eminent expert in the field of child sexual abuse” said the victim’s death due to sexual assault was “so unlikely” it reached the “point of being absurd,” while another expert said the cause of death entered at the trial was not “even anatomically possible.”

The State, in response, conceded that Benavides’ conviction was based on false evidence. The validity of the evidence was “so undermined” by the recantations and new expert opinions that Benavides was entitled to relief, the State admitted. However, the State urged the Supreme Court to drop the murder conviction to second-degree murder as a remedy.

A writ of habeas corpus may be filed where the evidence admitted at trial is later found to be false and is material to the issue of guilt or punishment. False evidence includes expert opinions that have since been recanted by that expert or that have since been discredited by scientific research or technology. Cal Pen Code §1473(e)(1). “Materiality” is shown when there is a reasonable probability the result would have been different without the false evidence.

Benavides met this criteria, the California Supreme Court concluded. The difference between the medical professionals’ testimony at trial and their recantations was “striking,” the Court said. Even the testimony by the doctor who did not recant his story was “called into serious doubt by those who did recant.” Combined with the recantations and the State’s concession, the Court “overwhelmingly” concluded the false evidence tainted the trial.

The Court also rejected the State’s argument to reduce Benavides’ conviction to second-degree murder. “It is an impossible task to speculate whether the jury would have been persuaded that petitioner was guilty of second degree murder without the false evidence,” the Court determined. The evidence now shown to be false was “extensive, pervasive, and impactful,” the Court said.

Accordingly, the Court granted the petition for writ of habeas corpus, vacated the conviction in its entirety, and remanded the case. See: In re Figueroa, 412 P.3d 356 (Cal. 2018). 



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Related legal case

In re Figueroa



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