Criminal Justice

Inmate who represented himself on appeal and in fourth trial wins acquittal on murder charge

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A Pennsylvania inmate who served nearly 13 years in prison on a murder charge won an acquittal Monday after representing himself on appeal and in a fourth trial.

Jurors deliberated only 81 minutes before acquitting Hassan Bennett in the 2006 shooting death of 19-year-old Devon English and the wounding of 18-year-old Corey Ford, report the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Bennett said he was at home on the phone when he heard the gunshots and ran outside to investigate. English and Ford were friends.

Prosecutors had claimed that Bennett plotted the crime because of losing $20 to English in a dice game.

Bennett’s first trial in 2008 ended in a mistrial because of jury tampering. He was found guilty in his second trial later that year, but Bennett won a new trial based on his own appellate arguments on ineffective assistance of counsel. The third trial last year ended with a hung jury after Bennett represented himself.

In the fourth trial, which started last month, Bennett once again acted as his own lawyer. He argued that a homicide detective coerced statements from Ford and a co-defendant who wrongly identified Bennett as the shooter. The detective has been accused of coercing witness statements in at least 10 cases.

Bennett noted to jurors that prosecutors didn’t call the detective to testify, although Bennett called him to the stand and accused him of coercion.

Ford and the co-defendant recanted their statements to the detective at trial. Bennett also submitted phone records to back up his story and produced three witnesses who corroborated it.

Bennett said that, when he began to represent himself in the appeal, he took it upon himself to learn the law. He studied in the prison library and received help from his cellmate, who would rip up his handwritten documents if they weren’t written in the proper format.

“He was like my Yoda,” Bennett said in the Washington Post story.

Bennett recounted his opening statement in an interview with the Washington Post. Bennett told jurors to think of the song from Sesame Street that asked viewers to identify what doesn’t belong there. Bennett said he was like Oscar the Grouch among photos of fruit.

Prosecutors might think Oscar the Grouch belongs because he has a smart mouth and is nobody’s favorite on Sesame Street, Bennett said. “But that doesn’t make him guilty when the evidence shows he’s not guilty.”

Bennett said he’s considering a legal career after his courtroom success. A high school graduate, he’s considering college and law school. In the meantime, he has accepted a job with his standby counsel doing investigative and paralegal work, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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