SAN JOSE — With his trial date approaching, a man charged with sexually assaulting a toddler boy to death seven years ago has pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for what will likely amount to a decade-long prison sentence.
The plea agreement reached this week for 45-year-old Alejandro Rodriguez Benitez also occurs a few weeks after prosecutors ended their pursuit of the death penalty for his April 11, 2012 killing of 16-month-old Kaden Bernard at his babysitter’s East San Jose home.
Prosecutors cited “mitigating” evidence provided by defense attorneys for their decision. But neither side has publicly explained that evidence.
Under California law, voluntary manslaughter differs from a murder in that it entails no prior intent to kill, and suggests the act was spontaneous and triggered by an emotional or mental disturbance. The charge also carries far less sentencing exposure.
Benitez also pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious acts by force with a minor under 13, and one count of kidnapping. Under the agreement between the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office and Alternate Defender’s Office, he will be sentenced to 19 years in prison for the crimes.
Benitez has been in jail since his August 2012 arrest, so after accounting for time served, Benitez would have to spend about nine years in prison to complete his sentence.
“We don’t stop investigating a case when charges are filed. Sometimes cases evolve,” Chief Trial Deputy District Attorney Angela Bernhard said. “There were factors related to the defendant himself, and there were additional factors related to evidence.”
“We are grateful to get justice for this victim. It speaks to the fact the defendant is acknowledging he caused this death,” she added. “The purpose was to get justice for this poor child. We feel like this (plea) definitely did that.”
Benitez attorney Jessica Delgado, with the Alternate Public Defender’s Office, said her client’s plea reflected a fair compromise.
“The settlement negotiation in the People v. Alejandro Benitez case is the culmination of rigorous investigation and analysis by both sides” Delgado said in a statement. “I am grateful that the District Attorney’s Office remained open to considering information from the defense throughout the process.”
On the day he died, Kaden’s mother dropped him off at the East San Jose home of Juana Ayala, his regular babysitter. That afternoon, Ayala called police to report that the child had choked while drinking the bottle of milk his mother had left for him.
But an ensuing investigation linked Benitez, Ayala’s boyfriend at the time, to semen consistent with his DNA profile on the boy’s clothing and body, along with over 40 different injuries covering his body. An autopsy concluded that the child died from “lack of oxygen caused by probable oral copulation.”
In 2016, four years after the initial charges, the District Attorney’s Office announced that it would seek the death penalty against Benitez. This past July, the office reversed course on that decision, citing, without specificity, “mitigating” evidence presented by the defense that diminished prosecutors’ confidence in securing a death verdict. The new evidence, District Attorney Jeff Rosen said at the time, meant he could no longer justify devoting the additional resources that accompany a death-penalty case.
Defense attorneys opposed death-penalty consideration from the start, in part citing voters’ majority opposition to capital punishment in California, a stance elevated further this year when Gov. Gavin Newsom instituted a state moratorium.
The Alternate Defender’s Office similarly declined to elaborate on the evidence they presented to sway prosecutors off the issue. But a death-penalty expert told this news organization in July that a defendant’s past experience with abuse or an intellectual disability are some common reasons for why a jury might oppose issuing a death sentence.