By Sharon Coolidge
Enquirer staff writer
A Stark County Common Pleas Court judge refused to grant a new trial to a man convicted of killing his best friend in a drunken driving accident.
The Ohio Innocence Project, a program based at the University of Cincinnati that uses post-conviction DNA testing and other evidence in an attempt to exonerate convicts they believe are innocent, argued earlier this month that Chris Bennett was wrongfully convicted.
They asked Judge Lee Sinclair that Bennett, 28, of Paris, Ohio, be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea on charges of aggravated vehicular homicide, driving under the influence and driving without a license and that he be given a new trial.
It's rare for judges to grant new trials based on evidence gathered after a conviction.
"The evidence showed that the defendant made an objective decision after being provided with all of the relevant facts, to accept a negotiated plea as opposed to going to trial," Sinclair wrote in his decision.
The group said they would appeal.
"Chris Bennett is innocent, and the evidence - including DNA - introduced at the hearing overwhelmingly proved it," said attorney Mark Godsey, the group's faculty adviser.
It has been more than three years since Bennett's best friend, Ronnie Young, was killed in the accident that landed Bennett in Mansfield Correctional Institute.
Bennett, then 25, and Young, 42, were driving on a rural road in Paris when the van veered out of control and slammed into the front of a truck parked on private property, injuring its owner, who had been working on the truck.
Bennett suffered a head injury in the crash, leaving him with no memory of the accident, he says. Bennett has claimed that with a faulty memory, he felt he had no option except to plead guilty.
After he was convicted, he said his memory started coming back and he remembered the accident differently: He said Young was driving and he was the passenger. He contacted the student lawyers, who took the case and tracked down the van, had DNA testing done on blood and hair found inside it and hired an accident reconstructionist, who said they believed Bennett's injuries were consistent with having hit the passenger-side windshield.
In the written decision, Sinclair did not say whether he believed Bennett was guilty.
"In the end," Godsey said, "the judge just ignored all the evidence because Chris had pleaded guilty. That is wrong."
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