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Hassan Bennett

Other Philadelphia Exonerations
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Just before 1 a.m. on September 22, 2006, Corey Ford and Devon English were sitting in English’s car, near the intersection of Robinson Street and Landsdowne Avenue, in the Overbrook neighborhood on Philadelphia’s west side. Two gunmen approached the vehicle and then began shooting. English, in the driver’s seat, was shot in the head and died at the hospital. Ford was shot twice in the leg and once in the buttock. He was taken to the hospital, quickly treated, and then taken to the police station to give a statement.

Ford signed a statement that he and English were shot by 16-year-old Lamont Dade and 23-year-old Hassan Bennett, who both lived in the neighborhood. Police questioned Dade that day and he denied any involvement, but said Bennett had targeted English because he had lost money to him shooting dice.

Bennett had been seen by officers that night in the aftermath of the shooting. He said he had been on the phone when he heard the shots and went out to see what had happened. He was brought in for questioning on September 25, and placed in a holding cell with a man named Kharis Brown, who was on probation and facing a weapons charge.

Brown said that Bennett told him he was about to be charged with murder for killing someone over a dice game, and that he had a plan to get rid of witnesses. Brown asked to be excused from the cell and then told police about his conversation with Bennett. Police obtained a search warrant for Bennett’s home, but found no weapons or other evidence. Bennett was arrested the next day and charged with murder, attempted murder, assault, and 11 other counts related to the shooting.

Dade was arrested on August 1, 2007. He confessed and said he had shot English in the head with a 9 mm pistol, while Bennett had used a .40-caliber pistol to shoot Ford. Dade said that while English was dying, he had snatched $2,000 from his pocket and given it to Bennett, who took the money and the weapons. Dade said it was him, not Bennett, who was the loser at the dice game and that Bennett had goaded him into the attack by reminding him of that event. As part of a plea deal, he agreed to testify against Bennett.

Bennett’s trial in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County began on February 11, 2008. His court-appointed attorney was Steven Laver, a well-regarded and experienced trial lawyer.

Ford was no longer a cooperating witness for the state. Now, he said neither Bennett nor Dade was involved in the shooting. Ford’s statement to police was introduced as evidence, although in his testimony he denied ever signing the document and said that a police detective named James Pitts coerced the statement.

Brown testified as to what he said Bennett told him in the holding cell. Dade testified about how the shooting had happened, and how Bennett had been upset with him for helping Ford out of the car after he was shot.

A crime-scene investigator testified that eight bullet casings had been recovered next to the car where English and Ford were shot. Seven casings from the .40-caliber weapon were found on the passenger side, where Dade said Bennett had stood. A single 9 mm casing was found on the driver’s side.

Bennett testified and denied any involvement with the shooting. In addition, two of Ford’s friends and Ford’s mother also testified that Ford had told them that Bennett wasn’t involved in the shooting. During deliberations, a mistrial was declared after it was revealed that a witness had contacted a juror.

Bennett’s second trial began on December 15, 2008. He was convicted on December 22, 2008 of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy, and possessing an instrument of crime. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Prior to the trial’s start, Dade had pled guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to between 20 and 40 years in prison.

After his conviction, Bennett was sent to the state prison in Graterford, which housed many inmates from the Philadelphia area. Dade was also there. Several inmates said they heard Dade state that Bennett wasn’t involved in the shooting. At one point, Bennett was in a cell beneath Dade, and Bennett said he heard Dade say that it had all been a setup. This recantation formed the heart of Bennett’s motion to vacate his conviction, which was filed in 2009.

Three days of hearings were held before Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, Bennett’s trial judge, in May 2009. Dade testified at the hearing and said that he had lied because he didn’t like Bennett. He said he committed the shooting by himself and that he didn’t know who the second shooter was. In a brief opposing Bennett’s motion, prosecutors scoffed at Dade’s recantation. They noted that it occurred only after Dade learned that Bennett was going to be in the same prison and that Dade’s new version of events contained critical gaps. He had no explanation for how he had obtained the gun and said it had just “appeared.”

Sarmina denied Bennett’s motion, and her ruling was upheld on appeal.

On July 17, 2014, Bennett’s new appellate attorney filed a motion under Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act seeking a new trial. But before hearings could take place, Bennett fired the attorney and filed a motion to represent himself in the appeals process. The following July, he filed his own PCRA motion, claiming extensive ineffective assistance of counsel by Laver, who had died in 2009.

First, he said that Laver had failed to call two key witnesses, Jazmine Murray and Daniel Saunders. Bennett said he was on his cellphone with Murray at the time of the shooting, and Saunders could testify to hearing part of that conversation. In his correspondence with Bennett, Laver wrote that he was hesitant about putting Saunders on the stand because Saunders might have credibility issues due to his arrest record. He noted that if Saunders didn’t testify, he would be unable to establish a basis for calling Murray. Saunders was never called, but Bennett said in his motion that Saunders’s charge had been dropped prior to trial; he should have testified, paving the way for Murray’s evidence.

Related to this, Laver failed to introduce the cellphone records that could have shown Bennett’s phone being used for 31 minutes before, during and after the time Ford and English were shot.

Bennett also said in his petition that Laver had failed to adequately impeach Brown by showing the true extent of his criminal charges at the time he met Bennett. The problem was that Brown had some charges under a different name, and Laver didn’t secure those records.

He also said that Laver had failed to call a witness who could have testified that she saw Bennett in the aftermath of the shooting, and that the clothes he was wearing didn’t match the description in Ford’s statement. Separately, Bennett’s petition also revealed a new witness, whom police had never interviewed. This man said he saw the shooting and knew it wasn’t Bennett because the shooters had close-cropped hair and Bennett was wearing dreadlocks at the time.

Bennett said Laver was ineffective in challenging the statement signed by Ford, which prosecutors used to rebut his exculpatory testimony. Bennett noted that Ford was taken from the hospital at 4:13 and arrived at the police station 10 minutes later. He had been shot just three hours earlier, was barely clothed, and was in a holding room for nearly 10 hours before he signed a statement that named Dade and Bennett as the shooters. At the mistrial, Ford had testified that Pitts had told him what to say. That testimony wasn’t introduced into evidence at the second trial. In a statement to a private investigator made in 2015, Ford said he had been forced to hire an attorney to keep Pitts at bay, and that the officer had hit him in the leg while he was being questioned in a holding room about the shooting.

By the time of Bennett’s motion, Pitts’s methods had already come under fire. On November 6, 2013, the Philadelphia Daily News published a lengthy article that revealed how three murder prosecutions handled by Pitts had collapsed amidst accusations that he had coerced false statements from witnesses through threats and physical violence (Separately, Dwayne Thorpe was exonerated in 2019, based largely on testimony that Pitts had coerced false statements from witnesses.).

In his 2015 statement, Ford said that Dade and a man with the nickname of “Cooge” were the shooters, and he provided a possible motive for Dade framing Bennett. Ford said that Dade was upset that Bennett had slept with his girlfriend.

Dade had testified that he and Bennett had smoked marijuana prior to the shooting. At the time, Bennett was on probation, and he was required to be drug-tested. Laver had those records, including a test from September 25, 2006, that covered the period in question. But those records weren’t introduced. Bennett wrote in his petition: “Defendant’s clean drug results would have corroborated Defendant’s testimony; he does not smoke weed. Moreover, evidence would have impeached Lamont Dade’s statements, he smoked weed with defendant before and after the shooting.” He also noted that jurors had examined this aspect of the testimony during their deliberations.

Bennett also alleged in his petition that prosecutors had withheld evidence that backed up Ford’s trial testimony clearing Bennett. Ford was arrested in late 2006 on a weapons charge, and two of his friends told police that they were out looking for “Cooge,” in retaliation for the shooting.

During Bennett’s trial, police had said Ford’s refusal to name Bennett had nothing to do with his innocence and everything to with Ford not wanting to be a snitch. But the police statements by his friends undercut that theory; Ford knew who shot him, Bennett claimed, and was planning revenge on the right person.

Without comment, Sarmina ordered a new trial on June 16, 2017. The state didn’t appeal, and Bennett’s third trial began on August 27, 2018. Bennett was now representing himself, with Benjamin Cooper as his standby attorney. Although his conviction had been overturned, he was still incarcerated, unable to make bail, and he chose to appear in court in his jail clothing. That trial ended on September 13 in a hung jury, with a majority of the jurors voting for acquittal.

The fourth trial began on April 23, 2019. As at the third trial, Ford and Dade testified that their statements or previous testimony implicating Bennett had been coerced by Pitts. Prosecutors didn’t call Pitts as a witness, but Bennett did, and he used his questions to establish that coercion was a pattern in Pitts’s career. Separately, he was able to introduce the cellphone records that were not used by Laver. After 81 minutes of deliberation on May 6, 2019, the jury acquitted Bennett. He left the courthouse still wearing his jail attire.

Speaking to WUSL, 98.9 FM radio station a few days after the trial, Bennett said he had been confident that he would be acquitted, because he had prepared so well. “When I heard them actually say, ‘First-degree murder, we find the defendant not guilty,’ I grabbed the standby counsel. I gave him a hug. We did it. We’re certified.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 5/22/2019
State:Pennsylvania
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Illegal Use of a Weapon, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:2006
Convicted:2008
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No