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Man Beats Murder Charge, And Odds, By Helming Own Case

By Matt Fair | May 12, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

Eight years into what ultimately became a nearly 13-year prison stint, Hassan Bennett made the rare and often criticized choice to take over as his own counsel as he fought charges for a murder he insisted he didn't commit. This month, however, he finally became a free man.

Relying on resources from a prison law library, guidance from standby counsel and his own sheer wit and willpower, Bennett managed to convince a Philadelphia jury to acquit him on May 6 in his fourth trial over the September 2006 shooting death of Devon English.

"It's very rare that a defendant can handle his own trial, especially a jury trial," said Jona Goldschmidt, a professor in Loyola University Chicago's criminal justice program who has studied pro se, or self-represented, litigation extensively. "All the work he did, that's really a credit to his efforts."

Bennett, who was 23 when the shooting happened, first went to trial in February 2008 with representation from a public defender, but the case ended in a mistrial due to concerns over jury tampering. A second trial later that year ended in Bennett's conviction on a second-degree murder charge that brought a life sentence.

After an unsuccessful appeal, in October 2014 Bennett decided to dismiss his court-appointed lawyers and go it alone as he pursued a Post-Conviction Relief Act petition arguing that his trial attorney had mismanaged the case.

A judge eventually agreed and granted Bennett a new trial.

Bennett's third trial ended in September with a jury that split 11-1 in favor of acquittal, leading to a final trial that ended with Bennett walking out of Philadelphia's criminal courthouse a free man.

The prosecution was premised in large part on statements Corey Ford, who was injured in the shooting, and Lamont Dade, who eventually pleaded guilty as a triggerman in the shooting.

While both Ford and Dade claimed that Bennett had participated in the attack, Bennett has maintained that he was inside and on the phone at the time.

Dade later recanted and said his statement implicating Bennett been coerced out of him by a Philadelphia homicide detective, James Pitts, who has since come under an ethical cloud for his interrogation tactics.

In just one example, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in October 2017 that the city agreed to pay three-quarters of a million dollars to settle a malicious prosecution lawsuit brought by a man who he falsely confessed to a murder he was later acquitted of after being roughed up during an interrogation session involving Pitts and another detective.

In the cases he tried pro se, however, Bennett was able to call additional witnesses who had not taken the stand before, and to challenge Pitts, who was not called as part of the prosecution's case, on his interrogation methods.

Benjamin Waxman, a spokesman for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, declined to comment substantively on the case.

"While we disagree with the jury's verdict, we respect their decision and thank them for their service," Waxman said.

Bennett could not be reached for comment.

Benjamin Cooper, who served as standby counsel in the case, praised Bennett's diligence and dedication.

"It's difficult enough when you've gone to law school and you're trying a case for the first time, so imagine what it's like being in that situation and having no legal training," he told Law360. "But he was excellent."

Goldschmidt has the data to show just how remarkable Bennett's acquittal truly is.

As part of a 2015 study, Goldschmidt and a colleague found that more than 95% of pro se defendants in federal felony cases between 1996 and 2011 were found guilty, compared with 81.5% of those with retained counsel and 85.9% of those with a public defender.

Cooper, who has worked with other pro se defendants, said that statistics like those made it easy to be cynical when he was first assigned to the case in October 2017.

"You can make the mistake of assuming it will be the same as it was with other cases where some of the pro se litigants were not very prepared or don't know what they're doing," he said. "He had already gotten [post-conviction] relief as his own litigant, so he had some credibility coming in."

Aside from winning the case, Goldschmidt said it's a rare thing for a defendant in a criminal case to represent himself in the first place.

According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2000, a little less than half a percent of defendants in felony cases in the country's 75 largest counties were represented pro se.

Goldschmidt's study showed similar results, with defendants representing themselves in 0.2% of felony criminal cases disposed of in the federal courts between 1996 and 2011.

Goldschmidt told Law360 that dissatisfaction with public defenders was a key driver of pro se representation. With courts generally unwilling to appoint new counsel if defendants signal dissatisfaction with their representation, he said that a growing number of people choose to go it alone.

"The courts usually limit the appointment to one attorney, take it or leave it, and so a lot of these defendants believe they are being forced to represent themselves," he said. "They don't necessarily want to, but they feel they're forced to."

And a review of court records in Bennett's case suggests repeated dissatisfaction with lawyers he was assigned before opting to represent himself.

After his first trial in February 2008, court records show that Bennett sent two letters to his attorney at the time, Steven Laver, urging him to contact several witnesses who he said would be able to back up his story that he was inside his house on the phone at the time of the shooting.

In what served as a key sticking point in his petition for post-conviction relief, none of the witnesses were ever called at Bennett's second trial.

Bennett was eventually assigned a new attorney, Earl Kauffman, as he pursued post-conviction relief but ultimately asked for the lawyer's dismissal based on what he said were flaws in the filing.

Even after Cooper was assigned to serve as Bennett's standby counsel in the case, court records show that disagreements continued.

Bennett asked to have Cooper taken off the case in April 2018 over what he called "an irreconcilable personality conflict ... and difference of opinion on the matter in which this case should be litigated."

"Both defendant and stand-by have yet to bridge the cultural, financial and trust gap which prevents the defense team from working in unison," Bennett wrote.

Cooper said that working with Bennett was a process as they got to know one another, studied the case and plotted their defense strategy.

"There's a warming-up process that has to be there, but it got good once we learned about each other and I saw that he was working hard and he saw that I was trying to help him the best I could," he said.

Their mutual respect has grown to the point that, now that Bennett is free, the two are exploring whether he may be able to serve some role in Cooper's legal practice.

"We're going to talk about it and see what his interests are and what he wants to do," Cooper said. "I think he's an intelligent kid, so it might be helpful for the both of us."

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.