Hassan Bennett stood before a Philadelphia jury last Friday arguing that his client was not guilty of a 2006 murder for which he was serving a life sentence. He spoke of "reasonable doubt," and of how the nation's founding fathers and civil rights leaders had fought for everyone to have their rights upheld in a court of law. He scornfully pointed to a homicide detective seated in the front row and accused him of using his "poisonous grasp" to squeeze a false confession out of a key witness.
"Jurors, pay attention," said Bennett, his face framed by shoulder-length dreadlocks. "The evidence shows that they can't prove a reasonable doubt. They can't even prove a preponderance of the evidence."
Despite his bravado and his seeming comfort with legal terms, Bennett, 35, is no lawyer. His client is himself. And on Thursday, its fourth day of deliberations, the jury of nine women and three men could not reach a unanimous decision in his case, prompting Common Pleas Court Judge J. Scott O'Keefe to declare a mistrial.
Bennett, who remains behind bars without bail, was charged with second-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, aggravated assault, and possession of an instrument of crime. He was accused of being a coconspirator in the shooting death of Devon English, 19, and the wounding of Corey Ford, 18, who were ambushed in a car parked near 61st Street and Lansdowne Avenue in the early morning of Sept. 22, 2006. His first trial also ended in a mistrial, leading to a second trial in December 2008 during which he was convicted of killing English and wounding Ford.
Bennett, an Overbrook High School graduate, had successfully petitioned the court for a new trial based on a claim of ineffective counsel at his 2008 trial — and then represented himself before a new jury at the retrial, which began Aug. 28.
Ben Waxman, spokesperson for the District Attorney's Office, said Bennett would face trial yet again.
"We absolutely intend to retry him," Waxman said Thursday.
Attorney Ben Cooper, Bennett's court-appointed standby counsel, said it is highly unusual for a defendant with no formal legal training to represent himself in a murder trial.
"I was very proud of him. He worked very hard, he read the transcripts, he studied, he taught himself some skills," said Cooper. "He said, 'I've been sitting in jail for 12 years waiting for my shot.' "
Assistant District Attorney Tracie Gaydos, in her closing argument last Friday, told the jury that there was no doubt Bennett was guilty. She pointed to statements implicating him given to police hours after the shootings by Ford and by Lamont Dade, who is serving a 25-to-50-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2008 to firing the fatal shot into English's head.
Although Ford and Dade recanted their statements during the retrial and refused to place Bennett at the crime scene, Gaydos said their original statements should be believed.
In his original statement, Dade claimed only to have witnessed Bennett shooting English and Ford while they sat in Ford's car. In August 2007, Dade gave police another statement, claiming that while he was getting high at a crack house, Bennett convinced him to settle a score with English over losing $20 in a dice game.
"Hassan Bennett, I hate to tell you, man, this case is not about you, it's about that family that has been grieving for 12 years … over a dice game, over disrespect," Gaydos thundered at Bennett in her closing statement.
Tina Lee, English's aunt, who attended the retrial, said in an interview that Bennett's acting as an attorney and drawing laughs from spectators due to his street vernacular and unpolished style had made a "mockery" of her late nephew's life and the justice system.
In a letter to the Inquirer and Daily News in March, Bennett wrote that he had begun studying law while incarcerated in Waynesburg, Greene County. In October 2013, he said, he read articles about the unrelated murder cases of Nafis Pinkney and Amin Speakes, who were arrested by Philadelphia Homicide Detective James Pitts only to be acquitted by juries after trials during which Pitts was accused of coercing statements from witnesses.
Realizing that Pitts had interviewed witnesses in his case — including Ford, whose first police statement implicated him, and which the prosecution used to help convict him — Bennett petitioned the court for a new trial alleging that the statement was tainted. That request was denied.