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 County, Santa 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.