Friday, February 18, 2005
Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence in Child’s Rape-Murder
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence imposed for the murder of a 21-month-old child by a babysitter who abused her sexually.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown, writing for a unanimous court, rejected challenges by Vicente F. Benavides to his conviction and sentence for first degree murder with special circumstances of felony-murder rape, felony-murder sodomy, and felony-murder lewd conduct.
Investigators focused on Benavides after Consuelo Medina’s mother, Estella Medina, told the paramedic who took the infant from Delano Medical Center to Kern County Medical Center for treatment of internal injuries that the child had run into a steel door while chasing her older sister.
The medical staff found the explanation inconsistent with its physical observations. Despite transfer to UCLA Medical Center for more advanced care, the child died eight days after the incident.
Benavides told police the same thing Medina told the paramedic about how the injuries occurred.
Estella Medina later testified that Consuelo was in good health when she left home on the evening of the assault to go to work, and that Benavides, her companion and a farm worker, was to look after both girls.
Forty minutes after she left the house, she said, she got a call from her older daughter, saying Consuelo was sick. Five minutes later, she arrived home to find Benavides with the little girl in his arms; the couple took the child immediately to Delano Medical.
Prosecutors presented evidence that semen, which may have been the defendant’s, and blood which could have been the victim’s, was on a towel taken from the master bedroom of the apartment. They also presented medical evidence that the child had been raped and sodomized, along with testimony from the victim’s sister that the defendant had once taken Consuelo into his bedroom and kept her there overnight with the door locked when her mother was away.
Benavides testified in his own behalf, again claiming the death was accidental. The defense presented medical witnesses who said the death could have occurred as the defendant claimed, but jurors found the defendant guilty and returned true findings on all of the special allegations.
In the penalty phase, the prosecution presented testimony by three relatives of the victim regarding the effect of the death on the extended family. The defense offered two character witnesses.
In closing arguments in the penalty phase, the prosecutor—referring to the defendant’s persistent denials of guilt—remarked, “I ask you one final thing, that is to give the defendant the mercy that he gave Consuelo Verdugo. When he asked for your mercy here today through Mr. Harbin, you remember him on the stand denying anything that happened. Mr. Harbin says that he could be rehabilitated, I ask you to remember how he denied every single thing for hours on there. I ask you to show him the same mercy that he showed Consuelo Verdugo and to do justice here today, that is to sentence him to death. Thank you.”
Brown rejected the defense claim that this amounted to misconduct.
“In light of the aggravated nature of the offense, a reminder by the prosecution that Consuelo was helpless in the hands of the man to whom she had been entrusted and a suggestion that he deserved an equal measure of mercy did not constitute deceptive or reprehensible methods of persuasion, nor did such comments infect the trial with unfairness,” the justice wrote.
The case is People v. Benavides, 05 S.O.S. 901.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company