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Wrongly convicted man halts fight for funds

Courtesy of Ernest BenefielErnest Benefiel

Ernest Benefiel believed he was just the kind of innocent man California intended to help with its Erroneously Convicted Persons program.

Wrongfully convicted of assaulting police officers with a deadly weapon, Benefiel spent five years in prison before a state appellate court set him free in 2009 because there was too little evidence he’d committed a crime.

But state officials disagreed.

The Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board administers the program. On the advice of the California attorney general’s office, it prepared to contest Benefiel’s claim for $188,000 at an administrative hearing next month.

Benefiel, a 47-year-old Fullerton resident, decided for now to halt his fight for those dollars – $100 paid to select exonerees for every day incarcerated.

“This money is established to help people who have been wrongfully convicted to get back into society,” Benefiel said. The system shouldn’t “just drop you off and say, ‘OK, now go fight for it.’ ”

A California Watch investigation earlier this year found that few of the state’s erroneously convicted ever receive funds from the program. From 2000 to 2010, the state awarded funds to 11 of the 132 exonerees who filed claims; it outright denied 44. Nearly half of claims (47 percent) never reached a final ruling, a group that now includes Benefiel’s case. 

Instead, Barak Vaughn, Benefiel’s attorney, said they would file a federal civil rights lawsuit this year against several local law enforcement agencies. Few exonerees are successful with California’s government claims board, he added.

“At this point, looking at the analysis and looking at the egregiousness of what happened to him during the time of his arrest, we think the (civil rights) claim is right now the better place to concentrate our efforts,” Vaughn said.

The night of Dec. 30, 2004, Benefiel was depressed over strife within his family and attempted suicide.

He locked his bedroom and consumed more than 20 sleeping pills and tequila. Benefiel drifted into unconsciousness, a handgun nearby, unaware that his 80-year-old father had called 911 in an attempt to save his son.

A SWAT team from multiple local police departments formed outside Benefiel’s apartment. Benefiel slept through the police’s requests for him to come out of the room, blared through a public address system. A flash-bang grenade also failed to wake him.

Benefiel gained consciousness when a beanbag bullet, one of several police fired through his window, struck him in the chest, court records show. Disoriented and scared, Benefiel fired at least one shot in return.

Once he understood it was police outside, Benefiel came out unarmed. He said he fired in self-defense. Police and prosecutors disputed this, and two juries convicted Benefiel.

In December 2009, the California Court of Appeal overturned his conviction, arguing that the evidence against Benefiel doesn’t prove assault. “The law is clear defendant was not required to retreat or to acquiesce to the police use of excessive and deadly force,” the appellate ruling said.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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