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Benjamin Hill

Other Minnesota Exonerations
On June 9, 2010, Ramsey County Sheriff’s police arrested 30-year-old Benjamin Hill on suspicion of burglary in St. Paul, Minnesota. The following day, June 10, search warrants were obtained and executed at his pizza business and the home of his parents because that was the address on his driver’s license, although he did not live there.

In a file cabinet in the basement of his parents’ home, police recovered a .357 magnum revolver. In an uncovered ventilation vent in the basement of the pizza restaurant, police found a Ruger P90 semi-automatic pistol wrapped in a pair of gloves.

On June 11, Ramsey County Sheriff’s deputy Thomas Rudenick obtained DNA buccal swabs from Hill. DNA tests were subsequently performed, and a mixture of DNA containing Hill’s DNA was found on both weapons.

On January 18, 2011, Hill was charged with two counts of illegal possession of a firearm based on a prior conviction for fifth degree possession of a controlled substance. He was not charged with burglary.

In January 2013, Hill went to trial in Ramsey County District Court. Rudenick testified about the discovery of the guns. He testified that he took a buccal swab from Hill and sent it to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) for analysis.

Allison Dolenc, a BCA analyst, testified that she found DNA on both of the guns. She told the jury that the .357 magnum contained “a mixture from two or more individuals” and “[t]here was a predominant DNA profile obtained from that that matched Mr. Hill.”

The Ruger P90 contained “a mixture from three or more individuals” with a "predominant DNA profile that matched Mr. Hill,” Dolenc testified. She also said that a “substantial amount” of Hill's DNA was obtained from the two firearms and she would not expect that amount to come from a “secondary transfer" of DNA from a piece of clothing or other item.

Dolenc testified that, based on her training and experimentation in the laboratory, she had never seen DNA transferred from an article of clothing such as a glove or sock to a firearm.

Hill testified that neither of the guns was his and that he had not handled them. He said that possibly he had worn the gloves used to wrap the Ruger.

Hill’s sister testified that the .357 magnum was hers. She said that the gun had been fired and cleaned not long before it was seized by police. An employee of Hill’s pizzeria testified that the Ruger was his and that he stashed it in the ventilation vent without Hill’s knowledge.

On January 17, 2013, Hill was convicted of two counts of possession of a firearm by an ineligible person. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

In May 2014, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the convictions.

In July 2015, the Washington County District Attorney’s office charged Deputy Rudenick with theft and misconduct of a public officer. Rudenick had retired earlier in the year. He came under scrutiny when an inventory uncovered inconsistencies in how the 25-year veteran had handled evidence.

According to the charges, Rudenick had begun taking items from evidence and selling them at pawn shops. He was in financial difficulty because he was going through a divorce, according to the prosecution.

After he retired, his fellow officers took over the files in his office to follow up on cases that were not resolved. In one case, an officer called a woman to determine whether the items that had been stolen from her and recovered at a pawnshop had actually been returned. She said she had not received them. Because the items were not in the evidence room, an officer checked the automated pawn system and discovered Rudenick had pawned items matching those reported stolen.

Authorities said that in February 2015, Rudenick pawned three pieces of gold jewelry in Duluth, Minnesota that he had recovered in July 2012 from a Coon Rapids, Minnesota pawnshop.

A Washington County investigator then discovered that Rudenick also pawned a county forensic phone data machine for $450. Rudenick was also accused of recovering stolen items from a Spring Lake Park pawnshop in July 2012, including a gold necklace and bracelet. Surveillance footage showed him selling the items at a Roseville pawnshop on two different days in April 2015, according to the charges. In total, Rudenick was accused of pawning jewelry valued at more than $4,500.

In October 2015, Rudenick pled guilty to theft. He was sentenced to probation for two and a half years.

In August 2017, attorneys Thomas Hagler and Kyle White filed a post-conviction petition seeking to vacate Hill’s convictions. The petition said that the only way Hill’s DNA could have been on the gun was because Rudenick put it there.

“Rudenick waited several days before logging the evidence in [Hill’s] case,” the petition said. “The majority of the burglary related evidence was returned to its owner on June 12, 2010. Rudenick did not fill in the date and time when he logged the firearms into his property log. However, on June 14, 2010, Deputy Julie Larson swabbed the firearms for DNA samples and logged the swabs into property.

“Rudenick had both the buccal swabs and the firearms unaccounted for and in his possession for at least three days,” the petition said. “The firearms were not received into inventory until June 29, 2010…Petitioner asserts that the only way his DNA was found on those firearms is because Deputy Rudenick put it there—and Rudenick was apparently capable of doing so.”

The lawyers contended that the criminal investigation showed “Deputy Rudenick tampered with evidence on numerous occasions. The independent investigation reports show Rudenick was dishonest with his department, his coworkers, and his wife…These reports and the independent investigation paint a portrait of a desperate investigator, behind in his work, willing to lie, cheat, and steal: willing to cut corners and plant evidence in order to secure the conviction of a person he undoubtedly thought should be off the street.”

On October 3, 2018, District Court Judge Judith M. Tilsen granted the petition, vacated Hill’s convictions and ordered a new trial.

The judge noted that during a hearing on the petition, Rudenick denied tampering with the evidence in Hill’s case. Rudenick recalled that he may have taken two buccal swab kits and could not remember when he took the swab to the crime lab for testing.

“He does not recall whether he put the buccal swab in evidence. He admits that he had access to the guns in this case,” the judge noted. “He admits he had access to both the buccal swab and the guns at the same time. He, not surprisingly, denies any mishandling or tampering or ‘planting’ of DNA.”

The judge noted that there was “a clear break” in the chain of custody for the guns and that Rudenick had the swabs and the guns in his custody for about four days.

“This court believes that opportunity and means coupled with Deputy Rudenick's dishonest behavior as an officer provide proof by a preponderance of the evidence that the DNA was planted in this case,” the judge declared.

Judge Tilsen also said that documents had not been disclosed by the prosecution that would have revealed the break in the chain of custody. “There is a reasonable probability that if the problems with chain of custody had been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different,” the judge ruled. “It is quite possible that a new trial court would not admit the DNA evidence based on the foundational problems highlighted by the missing documents.”

By that time, Hill had been released from prison after spending 1,206 days in custody—more than three years.

On December 10, 2018, the Ramsey County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges.

In May 2019, Hill filed a petition seeking an order that he was eligible for compensation from the state of Minnesota. In September 2019, the petition was denied. Hill appealed and in June 2020, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed, noting that changes in the compensation statute had been implemented subsequent to the denial. The appeals court held that there was “evidence of factual innocence.”

In response, the prosecution contended that it did not believe Hill was innocent, but had dismissed the charges “based on the goal of achieving justice in each and every case.”

In December 2020, District Court Judge Nicole Starr ruled that Hill met the definition of exonerated under the state compensation statute. “[T]his Court finds that [Hill] established that a crime was not committed,” Judge Starr ruled.

In November 2021, a panel assigned by the Minnesota Supreme Court approved a $423,212 award for Hill under Minnesota's Imprisonment and Exoneration Remedies Act. However, as of January 2022, the legislature had yet to appropriate funding for the award.

In January 2022, Hagler and attorney Paul Applebaum filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from Rudenick and the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. The lawsuit said that Rudenick had testified falsely about the chain of custody to cover up the delay in sending the evidence to the BCA for analysis.

“The only evidence used to convict [Hill] was the DNA planted on the two guns and…Rudenick’s perjured testimony regarding the manner in which he processed [Hill’s] DNA sample and the seized guns,” the lawsuit said.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/30/2022
Last Updated: 3/30/2022
Most Serious Crime:Weapon Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2010
Sentence:5 years
Age at the date of reported crime:30
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No