A man who spent nearly 25 years on California’s death row has walked free in the rape and killing of his girlfriend’s toddler daughter after it was found that there was no evidence a sexual assault had even occurred.
Vicente Benavides, 68, was supposed to be babysitting his girlfriend’s 21-month-old daughter, Consuelo Verdugo, while her mother was at work on Nov. 17, 1991.
He told police he lost track of the child, and eventually found her outside.
Benavides and Consuelo’s mother rushed her to a local hospital, saying Consuelo had been running after her older sister when she hit her head on a door.
Doctors repeatedly tried to insert a catheter into the little girl, but each attempt was unsuccessful.
Consuelo’s condition worsened, and a week after she had been brought to the hospital, she died.
A forensic pathologist said Consuelo died from injuries indicative of being sodomized.
Benavides was arrested and charged with felony murder, rape, sodomy and lewd conduct.
Several doctors testified that the girl’s injuries were caused by sexual assault, and Benavides was found guilty of the charges against him. He was sentenced to death.
But nearly all the doctors who testified that Consuelo was sexually assaulted later recanted, saying they hadn’t seen Consuelo’s full medical records that showed the injuries to her genitals and other areas may have been caused by her medical treatment.
"Her injuries can instead by attributed to medical intervention, including repeated failed efforts to insert a catheter... rectal temperature taking, use of paralytic medication and physical examination," according to the California Supreme Court's ruling.
There was no evidence when she was first hospitalized that Consuelo was sexually assaulted, officials said.
Several doctors also noted the purported cause of death was "anatomically impossible," since the organs typically injured in a sexual assault were unharmed.
"[W]e never had any concern that Consuelo had been the victim of any type of sexual assault," one of the little girl’s nurses went on to say.
In the state’s Supreme Court ruling, it was noted that a forensic pathology expert interviewed by the deputy attorney general said she was "embarrassed about the pathologist because what he says isn’t even... anatomically possible. She elaborated, 'I'm embarrassed that... a pathologist didn’t know better, didn’t know anatomy better.'"
Evidence suggested Conseulo may have actually been hit by a car, officials said.
"The receiving charge nurse noted Consuelo had ‘blown pupils,’ often seen incident to blunt force trauma from an auto accident," the state Supreme Court's ruling said.
The state Supreme Court ruled last month that incorrect medical testimony was presented at Benavides’ trial, and on Thursday, a judge ordered him released from San Quentin State Prison.
Benavides was the 162nd person on death row in the U.S. to be exonerated since 1973, according to the Innocence Project, which helped secure his freedom.
Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green said she will not retry Benavides.
"Upon an objective review of the facts, there is insufficient evidence to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," she said in a statement.