Friday, April 01, 2011

To get funds, wrongly convicted CA man must re-prove innocence

Police over-reaction leads to big trouble

An Orange County man wrongfully convicted of assaulting police officers with a deadly weapon must prove his innocence anew to receive compensation for the five years he spent in prison.

The California Attorney General’s Office is contesting Ernest Benefiel’s claim for $188,000 from the state’s Erroneously Convicted Persons program. The fund pays select exonerees $100 for every day incarcerated.

Benefiel filed his claim a year ago, after a state appellate court reversed his assault conviction and ruled him innocent in a December 2009 opinion. The ruling secured Benefiel’s freedom, but does not ensure his right to state money.

Rather, in a review of the case filed last week, Tia Coronado, a deputy attorney general, dismisses the appellate court’s arguments, contending that Benefiel was guilty as charged. "Benefiel has not demonstrated his innocence,” Coronado wrote. “On the contrary, an abundance of evidence confirms that Benefiel knowingly and intentionally fired at police officers.”

The Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, which operates the exonerate program, is scheduling a hearing on Benefiel’s case to take place within the next two months. Jon Meyers, a spokesman for the board, said the agency’s hearing officer would present evidence against the exoneree’s claim. The three-member board will rule on whether to grant him funds.

Benefiel said he couldn’t understand how a state lawyer could reach this conclusion based on the facts of his case. “It’s like them saying the appellate court doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” he said.

If Benefiel prevails, he will be among the minority to do so. Since 2000, 132 people wrongfully convicted in the California courts have filed claims with the state board for funds intended to help them rebuild their lives.

A California Watch investigation, published earlier this month, found that just 11 have received compensation. The board denied 107 of the claims and 14 await a hearing.

Benefiel said he isn’t sure he can afford the travel from Fullerton to Sacramento for the hearing. He does not have an attorney. Benefiel is essentially homeless, relying on relatives for shelter. Previously a heavy equipment operator, he said he struggles to find work due to back pain and psychological troubles exacerbated by his incarceration.

The legal saga that has consumed Benefiel’s life began with his suicide attempt on the night of Dec. 30, 2004 in the apartment he shared with his elderly father. Benefiel ingested more than 20 prescription sleeping pills that rendered him unconscious. Fearing for his son’s life, the father called 911.

He informed paramedics and police of the pills, court records show, and told them his son had a handgun in his bedroom. The Fullerton Police Department called its SWAT team to the scene. Officers attempted to communicate with Benefiel using a public address speaker and shone spotlights in his window, which was blocked by blinds.

Ninety minutes into the incident, police detonated a flash-bang grenade by the window, which also apparently failed to rouse Benefiel. Taking a more aggressive approach, a tactical unit officer fired seven beanbag bullets into the apartment bedroom, according to court records. Benefiel finally awoke.

He says he was severely disoriented from the medication and was wounded by either glass or bullet fragments sprayed across his chest.

Accounts by police officers at the scene suggest Benefiel then repeatedly looked out his window, allowing him to identify the people outside as law enforcement. They also contend that Benefiel fired two shots in the officers’ direction, the attorney general’s report states.

Shell casings that police collected later confirm Benefiel discharged two bullets, court records show, but that one of them might have been fired into the ceiling – not at officers.

In her report to the compensation board, Coronado, the deputy attorney general, states definitively that Benefiel twice shot at law enforcement. Also, she argues that Benefiel was not acting in self-defense, but “made the decision to take aim at the officers and fire his weapon at them.”

Following Benefiel’s gunshot, police returned fire, discharging five bullets into the apartment. Benefiel and the officers then began to communicate verbally; he climbed out the window unarmed and surrendered to police shortly thereafter.

An Orange County jury convicted Benefiel of assaulting police officers with a firearm in 2005, sentencing him to 27 years. An appellate court overturned the conviction because the judge admitted inappropriate evidence (prosecutors detonated a flash-bang grenade in the court room).

Two years later, another jury acquitted Benefiel of intentionally shooting at officers, though it convicted him on lesser charges. The appellate court in 2009 vacated that conviction as well. In their opinion, the judges said there was scant proof that Benefiel did anything but exercise his legal right to self-defense.

Original report here

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