Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Innocence Project testimony ends

Canton judge to decide on new trial

By Sharon Coolidge
Enquirer staff writer

CANTON - A Stark County Common Pleas Court judge will determine in a month if a Paris, Ohio, man will be able to withdraw his guilty plea to charges of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault - a case brought back to court by law students of the University of Cincinnati-based Ohio Innocence Project.

Judge Lee Sinclair spent Monday listening to testimony related to a May 2001 drunken driving crash that killed Ron Young. Young was a passenger in a van driven by Christopher Bennett that hit a parked truck. Bennett was convicted in Young's death.

The law students argued they have evidence that casts doubt on Bennett's conviction, saying they believe Bennett was the passenger and Young was at the wheel.

"I feel very confident in our case," said Mark Godsey, the group's faculty adviser.

Bennett, now 28, suffered a head injury in the crash, leaving him with no memory of the accident, he says. He pleaded guilty to four charges including vehicular homicide in exchange for a nine-year prison term.

But, Bennett says, he always had a nagging feeling that Young, 42, was driving. When his memory started coming back, he contacted the Innocence Project.

Students tracked down the van, had DNA testing done on blood and hair found inside it and hired an accident reconstructionist, who found that Bennett's injuries were consistent with having hit the passenger-side windshield.

Assistant Stark County prosecutor Mark Caldwell called a witness to the stand Monday who testified Bennett was the driver.

That testimony contradicted testimony given Friday by Lee Meadows, the first person to come upon the accident.

At the end of the hearing, Sinclair asked Bennett's attorneys and the prosecution to explain in writing how a tuft of Bennett's hair with a piece of scalp still attached, became wedged in the dashboard in front of the passenger seat of the car.


E-mail scoolidge@enquirer.com

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