Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Students get new evidence

Was jailed man driver or passenger?

By Sharon Coolidge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bruce and Paula Bennett, of Paris, Ohio, fight tears as they talk about the incarceration of their son, Christopher Bennett, at the Mansfield Correctional Institute.
Photos by GARY LANDERS/The Cincinnati Enquirer
Christopher Bennett has spent more than a year in prison after pleading guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide in a wreck that killed a friend.
Mary Macpherson, LaRhonda Carson and Ian Lin (from left), University of Cincinnati law students study records in the Droge Center. They have crisscrossed the state gathering evidence that they think will prove Chris Bennett's innocent.
Enquirer file
Nearly a year ago, Mary Macpherson had a hunch that Christopher Bennett wasn't the drunken driver who killed his buddy.

Now Macpherson and two of her UC law school counterparts believe they have the evidence to prove Bennett was the passenger in that car.

They plan to announce today that they will ask a judge to take a look at blood, hair and a witness statement that they spent hundreds of hours and criss-crossed the state gathering as part of the Ohio Innocence Project. They hope their work in the University of Cincinnati Law School course will persuade a judge to reverse Bennett's guilty verdict and prosecutors will set him free.

"No one should have to spend even a day in prison if they're innocent and Chris has spent over a year of his young life in a place he doesn't belong," said Macpherson, a second-year law student.

It's been more than two years since Bennett's best friend, Ronnie Young, was killed in the accident that landed Bennett in Mansfield Correctional Institute.

That Tuesday in May was a typical overcast, rainy spring day in Paris, Ohio, a small township outside of Canton. In the late afternoon, Bennett, then 25, and Young, 42, took their work van to Canton to buy replacement parts for a car engine they were rebuilding in their spare time.

On the way home they stopped at the Hitchin' Post Lounge, a smoky neighborhood bar with a pool table and $1.50 drafts.

The details become fuzzy after that, to the point Bennett said he couldn't remember who got behind the wheel after the pair left the bar.

Stark County deputies say the 1994 Chevrolet C-20 van spun out of control and slammed into the front of a truck parked on private property and injured its owner, John Blackburn, who had been working on the truck.

Neither Young nor Bennett was wearing a seat belt. Young was tossed between the van's two front bucket seats and was dead of multiple injuries when emergency workers arrived. Bennett suffered a tear on the front of his brain and was rushed to a hospital.

Both men had blood alcohol levels that made them legally drunk in Ohio.

Prosecutors have said that Bennett was driving - and had found a witness to confirm it.

Bennett's brain injury kept him from immediately remembering anything about the accident, he said, so he was in no position to argue with authorities.

"After that, I couldn't work. I just sat at home," Bennett said. "I wanted to remember. It was frustrating."

So instead of going to trial, he pleaded guilty to four charges including aggravated vehicular homicide in exchange for a nine-year prison term, which began Feb. 11, 2003.

"I was told the judge was very tough on drunk drivers and that if I didn't cut a deal I would have the book thrown at me and would get a very high sentence, maybe two or three times the prison sentence I'd get if I pleaded guilty," Bennett says. "That really scared me.

"I felt hopeless and trapped.''

But sitting behind bars at Mansfield Correctional Institution, Bennett said he started remembering. He recalls gripping the van, seeing the truck straight ahead, his head smashing into the windshield.

It was too late, though, to speak up and try to tell authorities he wasn't the driver, but its passenger, Bennett said he thought. But during a Euchre game last year, another inmate told him about the UC law school program.

Bennett, now 28, sat down and scrawled out a nine-page letter to the students.

Macpherson plucked Bennett's letter from 200 others on a hunch that further investigation should be done.

"There was an utter urgency in his letters, the letters screamed that DNA testing needed to be done, more so than we typically see, " said project adviser Mark Godsey. "Something about it was intriguing."

Macpherson, along with students LaRhonda Carson and Ian Lin, guided by Godsey and John Cranley, the project's administrator and a Cincinnati councilman, started their investigation.

They gathered reports from police, prosecutors and the coroner - but they knew finding the van was the key to making or breaking the case.

Last July, the group traced it to a junkyard in Minerva, Ohio. The van had been stored outdoors, but their hopes soared when they saw a stain that looked like blood on the passenger-side windshield.

The group made the four-hour trip across the state again in September, this time to collect samples of blood from the van for DNA testing, which was done at the Hoxworth Blood Center.

While the students waited for results, they searched for witnesses. They tracked down the first person who arrived at the scene - who had never been interviewed - and he told the students Bennett was sitting in the passenger seat when he got there.

The students also hired an accident reconstructionist to review the evidence. That expert determined Young was the driver, Bennett the passenger.

In their brief to the court, which they expect to file Thursday in Stark County Court, the students outline the evidence they gathered:

• A paper towel and rock found on the far passenger side, where the dashboard meets the windshield, soaked in blood that was determined to be Bennett's.

• A lock of hair on the passenger side, squeezed deeply in the crack where the dashboard and the passenger side-window frame meet, which DNA tests show was Bennett's.

• A small cluster of hair still attached to a piece of scalp that was found within the defroster vent on the passenger side, which testing showed belonged to Bennett.

• Young had chest injuries consistent with being hit by an air bag, which was only on the driver's side.

• Bennett suffered a head injury consistent with his head striking the windshield.

Still, Stark County Prosecutor John Ferrero is not convinced.

"There is no additional information that would change our minds," he said. "An independent witness puts him behind the wheel."

He said he wants to know if blood on the windshield matches Bennett's. That's the one piece of evidence the students don't have - they say it's unobtainable because the van sat in the sun for two years and is too badly damaged for DNA to be gathered.

Ferrero said he will continue to argue against a reversal of Bennett's conviction.

The victim's twin brother, Donald Young, was startled last month to hear the students were reinvestigating the accident. He'd never considered that it could have happened any way than what authorities had told him.

Bennett's sentencing, he said, gave his family closure.

Donald Young said that, because his brother and Bennett were drinking, he's always blamed both of them.

"My brother paid with his life; nine years isn't too much for Chris," he said.

From the evidence he's seen, Donald Young thinks it would be difficult to show his brother was driving.

If there is other evidence, Donald Young said, "I would be interested in seeing it."

So far Bennett has spent 394 days in prison.

"Getting out is on my mind all day," Bennett said. "I don't know when, but I know it's going to happen."


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