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Leon Benson

Other Marion County, Indiana exonerations
On March 9, 2023, 47-year-old Leon Benson, who was convicted of a 1998 murder in Indianapolis, Indiana, was freed from prison after his conviction was vacated based on evidence that had been suppressed by the police pointing to another man as the killer.

The case was dismissed by Marion County Superior Court Judge Shatrese Flowers, culminating an investigation of more than 18 months conducted by the University of San Francisco (USF) School of Law Racial Justice Clinic (RJC) and the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU). The exoneration was the first for the CIU since it was created in 2021.

Benson, who was 22 when he was arrested on August 14, 1998, had spent more than 24 years in custody.

“It is so surreal,” Benson declared shortly afterward as he raised a glass of champagne toasting his legal team, including USF attorneys Lara Bazelon and Charlie Nelson Keever and deputy prosecuting attorney Kelly Bauder, CIU co-director. “I just walked out of prison, literally, a few hours ago. I’m here. It’s really poetic.”

The exoneration came after the discovery that the lead detective, Alan Jones, had failed to turn over to the prosecution – and consequently Benson’s defense – dozens of pages of investigative notes and reports that suggested the real killer was Joseph Webster. Also not disclosed was information that contradicted Donald Brooks, who claimed that he saw Benson commit the murder.

Benson had been convicted of the August 8, 1998 murder of 25-year-old Kasey Schoen, who lived in Plainfield, Indiana, about 20 miles southwest of Indianapolis. The shooting occurred about 3:30 a.m. as Schoen sat in a truck, with the vehicle in gear, but his foot on the brake.

Christy Schmitt, who worked for the Indianapolis Star newspaper, stopped her minivan on the east side of the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, a three-lane one-way thoroughfare heading southbound. As she loaded newspapers in a vending box, she saw a black Dodge Ram truck drive past her and park on the west side of Pennsylvania Avenue, just south of the intersection with 14th Street.

Schmitt said she finished loading the newspaper box and crossed over to the west side of Pennsylvania Avenue where another vending box was located just north of 14th Street. She pulled along the curb and stopped. Her headlights were shining at the black truck, which was about 150 feet south of her.

She said that as she got out of her vehicle, she could see that a Black man was standing at the passenger window of Schoen’s truck. She said she could hear them talking, but not what was said. She said that as she was facing the vending box, loading newspapers, she heard what she thought were firecrackers, but were gunshots. When she looked up, Schmitt said, the man on the sidewalk stepped toward her with a gun in his hand, then went back to the passenger side of the truck and fired several more shots into the truck.

Schmitt said she got into her minivan and called 911. But the call did not go through. She said she drove south, crossing to the east side of the street and past the truck. She said she saw the gunman walking south and then run into a parking lot.

She stopped, backed up her minivan, and finally reached 911. Schoen had been shot five times. The passenger window was rolled down partially, to about three inches, but that portion had been shattered by gunfire. Five shell casings were recovered and firearms analysis showed they were all fired by the same gun, a .380-caliber semi-automatic pistol. However, no gun was recovered. Schmitt said the gunman was wearing a black shirt and black pants with three white stripes down the sides. She said the man was dark-skinned. She did not see any facial hair.

The area where the crime occurred was known for drug trafficking and drug use. However, Schoen was not a drug user. He worked for a car rental company at the Indianapolis airport and was drug-tested frequently with negative results. The area also was known for gay bars, including one of the city’s most well-known, The Varsity Lounge, which was located at 1517 N. Pennsylvania Avenue, less than two blocks from where Schoen pulled over and was killed. Although Schoen had not disclosed his sexual orientation to family or friends, some people close to him suspected that he was gay.

Detective Alan Jones, the lead investigator, showed a photograph of Schoen to a bartender at the Varsity Club, who said he recognized him as a customer.

On August 10, 1998, Jones met with Detective Randy West, who said that a confidential informant reported that in the hours before the shooting, three men were in the parking lot where the shooter was seen running away. The informant said that the three were selling drugs and that one of them was a Black man known as “Looney” who had been arrested for possession of a pistol at the nearby Academy Apartments weeks earlier.

Looney was identified as Joseph Webster, and records showed he had been arrested just weeks before the murder in possession of a .380-caliber pistol—the same type of weapon used to kill Schoen. Then, on July 24, 1998—two weeks before the murder—a security officer had stopped Webster across the street from the Academy Apartments. Webster was wearing a black jacket with two white stripes on the sleeves.

Also on August 10, the manager of the Academy Apartments told Detective Jones that the “talk throughout the building is [that] the police are looking for ‘Looney’ for the murder.”

None of these reports were disclosed by Jones to Benson’s defense. On August 11, officers located Webster in court on an unrelated criminal case and brought him to Jones. Through the lawyer who was representing him in that matter, Webster declined to speak to the police.

Later that evening, Donald Brooks approached Jones on the street near where the shooting occurred. Brooks said the gunman was known as “Detroit,” which was Benson’s nickname. Brooks claimed to have seen Benson shoot Schoen.

On August 14, Brooks told a different police officer that Benson could be found in the 1300 block of North New Jersey Street, about six blocks from the crime scene. Benson was brought in for questioning. At the same time, Christy Schmitt came to the police station. Detective Jones said he showed her a photographic lineup that included Webster’s photograph. Schmitt made no identification. When shown a photographic lineup that included Benson’s photo, she identified him as the gunman, although Benson was light-skinned and had a mustache.

After the identification, Detective Jones interviewed Benson. Benson said he had been in the Priscilla Apartments, which were located less than a block from the crime scene. He named several people who he claimed would testify he was there when they heard the gunshots. Benson did not reveal that the reason he was there was to sell drugs. That would later haunt Benson when people he said could provide an alibi denied seeing him—likely because to have done so would have been admitting to buying or using drugs.

Asked if he had ever been in the Varsity Lounge, Benson said he had because it was a convenient place to get a drink. He denied he was gay, and when Jones asked if he ever been propositioned, and if so how he felt, Benson said, “Yes, it made me feel angry and I let him know, and I said it ain’t like that, man, and, you know, [he] went about [his] way.”

At the conclusion of the interview, Benson was arrested. He was soon indicted on a charge of first-degree murder and illegal possession of a firearm.

Afterward, Brooks gave a formal statement. At the time, Brooks had a lengthy criminal record and in the past had been found mentally ill by a judge. According to notes taken by Detective Jones, Brooks said he saw Benson in the early morning hours prior to the shooting. Brooks said he went into the St. Regis apartments and went to apartment 208 on the second floor and looked out the window. Brooks said he saw Benson walk up to the passenger side of Schoen’s truck. Brooks said that he stepped away from the window, heard gunshots, and he looked back out the window. He said he saw not only Benson, but also saw Webster near Schoen’s truck at the time of the shooting. According to Brooks, Webster went around Schoen’s truck and headed to the Priscilla Apartments. “The other subject” (presumably, meaning Benson) went into the parking lot, according to Brooks.

After going through the interview, Jones then re-interviewed Brooks and recorded it on audio tape. Brooks also identified Webster from a photographic array. However, there was no reference to Webster in the recorded interview. Webster had been sanitized from Brooks’s account. Jones’s handwritten notes in which Brooks placed Webster by the truck when Schoen was shot were never disclosed to Benson’s defense lawyer.

The following day, August 15, 1998, Dakarai Fulton, who was in the Marion County Jail on drug charges, came forward. He told Detective Jones he had seen the shooting and identified Webster in a photographic lineup. Fulton told Jones that the gunman was wearing black jogging pants with three white stripes and a dark shirt – the same clothing description given by Christy Schmitt.

Fulton also said that less than 12 hours before the shooting he had stopped to speak with Webster. Fulton said Webster was carrying a .380-caliber handgun.

On August 23, 1998, Detective West faxed a handwritten note to Detective Jones. “[Webster] runs with Eddie aka Bo…says he was present at the shooting [and] saw [Webster] [shoot] white guy in head.” West’s note said his information came from a confidential informant. The note went on to say that Webster was “bragging about the shooting” to his ex-girlfriend, who was living in the Academy Apartments, where Webster often hung out.

This faxed note was never disclosed to Benson’s defense lawyer.

The day after West sent that note, Webster’s girlfriend, Latasha Sheppard, reported that her .380-caliber handgun had been stolen from her car sometime between August 1 and August 11, 1998. That information also was not disclosed to Benson’s defense lawyer.

That same day, Jones noted that an anonymous caller reported to Crime Stoppers that Webster “shot and killed Kasey Schoen.” The caller provided the address where Webster was staying with Sheppard at the time. The informant said the gun used in the shooting belonged to Sheppard.

In May 1999, Benson went to trial in Marion County Superior Court. The prosecution’s case relied primarily on Schmitt’s identification of Benson. Brooks attempted to recant his statement, repeatedly saying he did not remember what he told Jones. He did finally say that he saw several people on the street before the shooting, but he would not say whether Benson was near the truck. Brooks was impeached with his recorded statement.

Jones testified and admitted that Fulton had identified Webster as the shooter. He conceded that Webster had been an alternative suspect for a time.

Three witnesses testified that they saw Benson at the time of the shooting, although only one, Timothy Gaither, said he was with Benson inside the Priscilla Apartment building when the shots were fired. Gaither said Benson was wearing blue jeans and black shoes.

Benson testified and denied committing the crime. He described his whereabouts prior to and during the shooting. He said he was sitting on a back stairway of the Priscilla Apartments with Gaither at the time of the crime.

On May 26, 1999, after a two-day trial, a mistrial was declared when the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The jury reported that six jurors were voting for not guilty, one was undecided, and five were voting to convict.

Six weeks later, on July 6, 1999, Benson went to trial again. There were some critical differences between the two trials. Brooks, who by that time was in jail on an unrelated charge, again claimed a memory loss. For the first time, the prosecutor suggested that Brooks was feigning memory loss because he was afraid of retaliation from inmates at the Marion County Jail. Brooks denied it. After Brooks left the witness stand, the prosecutor was allowed to read the transcript of Brooks’s entire interview with Jones to the jury.

Benson’s defense attorney, Timothy Miller, not only did not object to that improper procedure, but he asked if he could “take a nap” while the statement was read. The statement included an uncorroborated allegation by Brooks, which had never been reported to police, that Benson had once robbed him at gunpoint of $40.

Miller did not cross-examine Detective Jones about Fulton’s identification of Webster as the gunman. The jury also did not hear that Fulton’s description of Webster’s clothing was very similar to Schmitt’s description. The defense did not call Fulton as a defense witness even though Fulton had identified Joseph Webster as the shooter. This time, the defense also failed to call Gaither.

The only witness called to support Benson’s account was a woman who said that after hearing gunshots, she ran inside the Priscilla Apartments and saw Benson and another man who was not Gaither. The prosecution, without presenting any basis, suggested during cross-examination that the woman was fabricating her testimony because she had exchanged sex for drugs from Benson. The witness denied that assertion. And the defense did not object.

On July 9, 1999, the jury convicted Benson of first-degree murder and illegal possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

In 2002, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the convictions and sentence. A post-conviction petition claiming ineffective assistance by his trial lawyer was denied in 2016.

In 2021, Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears established a CIU to review potential wrongful conviction cases such as Benson’s. Benson sought review of his case, and the CIU agreed to consider his case. In July 2021, the USF RJC agreed to represent Benson, reached out to the CIU, and the reinvestigation began.

The reinvestigation revealed that dozens of pages of notes from the detectives had not been disclosed to Benson’s defense lawyer in 1999. This included 77 pages of notes from Detective Jones, including the note from West stating that a man named Eddie had seen Webster commit the crime and that Webster had bragged about the murder to his ex-girlfriend Jamie. Those notes had also never been disclosed to the prosecution.

In the notes, Detective Jones indicated there were 12 surveillance cameras on a church next to the crime scene, but he did not view any of the footage. The notes also indicated that he viewed surveillance at the Academy Apartments nearby and decided the quality was too poor to make a copy.

The collaborative investigation also revealed that Brooks was not in a physical location that would have allowed him to see the shooting – his view from the second floor apartment would have been obscured by trees and foliage.

The reinvestigation also showed that years later, Webster became a federal witness in a massive drug trafficking prosecution in Indianapolis. Called “Operation Electric Avenue” by the FBI, the investigation ensnared about two dozen people, including Richard Grundy III, an alleged drug lord, who operated a cartel known as The Grundy Crew.

Webster became an informant for the FBI in 2017 after he was arrested carrying a large quantity of drugs and facing significant prison time. In his role as an informant, Webster wore a wire while working under the direction of FBI Special Agent Kerry Inglis to record drug deals that he made with suspected members of the Grundy Crew. Webster testified at the 2019 federal trial against one of those subjects, Ezelle Neville. In December 2019, Neville, Grundy, and three other co-defendants were convicted on charges of selling more than $3 million worth of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana in Indianapolis. Neville received a 30-year sentence. Grundy received life in prison. Webster was never charged.

On March 8, 2023, Benson’s conviction was vacated, the charges were dismissed, and he was released. During the years in prison, Benson had spent 11 years in solitary confinement. After he was released, Benson said, “Truth never dies. It is only rediscovered.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/21/2023
Last Updated: 3/21/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Weapon Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:1998
Sentence:60 years
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No