On Monday the California Supreme Court granted the habeas corpus petition of Vicente Benavides Figuero, a former farmworker who spent 27 years on death row, finding that medical testimony and an autopsy result used to convict him had been inaccurate. Most of the experts who testified against him have since recanted. “The evidence now shown to be false was extensive, pervasive and impactful,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court.
The outcome results directly from SB 694 (Leno), passed in 2015, which added as grounds for a writ of habeas corpus, new evidence exists which would raise a reasonable probability of a different outcome if a new trial were granted. This is a substantially different and easier burden to meet than the old standard, before 2015, when in order to prevail on a new evidence claim, a petitioner had to show that the new evidence undermined the prosecution’s entire case and “point[ed] unerringly to innocence with evidence no reasonable jury could reject” (In re Lawley (2008) 42 Cal.4th 1231, 1239). The California Supreme Court had stated that this standard was very high, much higher than the preponderance of the evidence standard that governs other habeas claims.
As the bill analysis for SB 694 explains, the old standard was: “nearly impossible to meet absent DNA evidence, which exists only in a tiny portion of prosecutions and exonerations. For example, if a petitioner has newly discovered evidence that completely undermines all evidence of guilt and shows that the original jury would likely not have convicted, but the new evidence does not “point unerringly to innocence” the petitioner will not have met the standard and will have no chance at a new trial. Thus, someone who would likely never have been convicted if the newly discovered evidence had been available in their original trial is almost guaranteed to remain in prison under SB 694 (Leno ) Page 4 of 6 the status quo in California. The proposed new standard in SB 694 addresses this anomaly. Our criminal justice system was built on the understanding that even innocent people cannot always affirmatively prove innocence, which is why the burden is on the prosecution to prove guilt when a charge is brought to trial, and absent evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, innocence is presumed. The new standard contained in this bill ensures that innocent men and women do not remain in prison even after new evidence shows that a conviction never would have occurred had it been available.”