The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As California moves to speed up executions, a man is exonerated after 25 years on death row

A 2010 file photo shows Vicente Benavides Figueroa in San Quentin, Calif. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via AP)

This Los Angeles Times editorial lays out the brutal details of yet another death-row exoneration:

A Kern County Superior Court judge last week ordered that a 68-year-old former farmworker, Vicente Benavides Figueroa, be released from San Quentin’s death row after the local district attorney declared she would not retry him. Benavides had been in prison for more than 25 years after being convicted of raping, sodomizing and murdering his girlfriend’s 21-month-old daughter.
Benavides was freed after all but one of the medical experts who testified against him recanted their conclusions that the girl had, in effect, been raped to death — conclusions they had reached after reviewing incomplete medical records. In fact, the first nurses and doctors who examined the semiconscious and battered girl in 1991 observed no injuries suggesting she had been raped or sodomized, but those details were not passed along to the medical expert witnesses who testified in court. Injuries later observed at two other hospitals were likely caused by that first effort to save her life, which included attempts to insert an adult-sized catheter.

Two points to add some context to this unimaginably horrific story:

First, Kern County, home to Bakersfield, was also the terrain of longtime district attorney Ed Jagels, one of the pillars of the law-and-order movement of the 1980s and 1990s. There was a joke that Bakersfield’s unofficial motto was “Come for vacation, leave on probation.” Jagels used to brag on his official Web page of having a higher per-capita imprisonment rate than any county in California. He was elected head of the state’s district attorneys association multiple times and was often referred to as the dean of California prosecutors. He also led the charge for nearly every draconian crime bill the state passed in that era, including the state’s notorious “three strikes” law. He helped get three anti-death-penalty justices removed from the California Supreme Court and lobbied heavily against medical marijuana.

Jagels was regularly berated by appellate courts for alleged prosecutorial misconduct, and as the journalist Edward Humes points out in his book “Mean Justice,” by his second term the number of misconduct complaints against Jagels’s office was triple that of his predecessor.

Jagels is perhaps best known for making Kern County ground zero for the ritual sex-abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s. Jagels’s office convicted 26 people of unimaginable crimes, including orgies involving children and animals, children forced to drink blood, and infants who were raped and cannibalized. These charges were based almost entirely on the memories of young children. In the overwhelming majority of cases, there was no physical evidence at all. No children showed signs of abuse. No children were reported missing. There was no blood to be found where these alleged crimes took place. Of the 26 convictions, 25 were later reversed. And overall, Benavides is now at least the 26th completely innocent person wrongly convicted by Jagels’s office. Kern County leads the state in exonerations per 100,000 residents, and by a large margin.

Jagels should have been removed from office and faced disciplinary sanctions. Instead, when he announced his retirement in 2009, he was called “the prosecutor’s prosecutor.” A former subordinate told the local paper, “Prosecutors from around the state seek and respect his advice on almost every issue of public safety.”

Since retiring, Jagels has been a criminal-justice policy adviser to various Republican campaigns, including Meg Whitman’s California  gubernatorial campaign. As for Kern County, since Jagels left, the DA’s office has been run by Lisa Green, a Jagels protégé who began working with him in 1983, the year he was elected. Green also personally represented the office in its fight against overturning some of the verdicts in the child sex-abuse cases.

Green’s tenure in Kern County has also been marked by scandal and allegations of misconduct. Last year, the California Supreme Court overturned three convictions, finding that Green’s office was racially discriminatory during the jury selection process. Before that, Robert Murray — one of Green’s top assistants — was suspended for a year by the California State Bar (a punishment that is vanishingly rare) for attaching a forged signature and confession to the statement given by a man accused of child molestation. Green stood by Murray and refused to fire him. (So did then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris, now a senator and possible presidential candidate.) Kern County is consistently among the leading counties in the United States when it comes to both its rate of police shootings and death sentences.

Green is retiring this year, but it doesn’t look like her exit will bring much change to Kern County. The two leading candidates for the job are both already prosecutors in Green’s office. One is Green’s top assistant, who has won her endorsement. The other has worked in the office for more than 30 years and has been endorsed by Jagels.

The second thing worth considering in light of Benavides’s exoneration is Prop 66, the death-penalty law passed by California voters in 2016. As the Los Angeles Times editorial points out, the measure is intended to speed up executions in the state by putting time limits on post-conviction petitions and restricting the grounds on which the condemned can request a new trial. This, even as we continue to learn about staggering prosecutor misconduct across the state, not just in Kern County, but in Orange County, Riverside CountySanta Clara County, Alameda County and Los Angeles County.

As the Los Angeles Times editorial above points out, 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.

This 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. It’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.