By Meagan FlynnReporterMay 9, 2019 at 4:13 a.m. PDT
Wearing a suit felt like a sham.
Hassan Bennett had been locked up for nearly 13 years — 4,614 days, he said — and so when he recently stood before the jury in a Philadelphia courtroom, he didn’t want to pretend he had been anywhere else. He dressed for court each day in his powder-blue prison uniform, with “DOC” written on the back in big bold letters, and throughout the 11-day trial, explained to jurors why they could not find him guilty of second-degree murder.
“They told me not to wear a prison uniform. I’m here in front of you in a prison uniform,” the 36-year-old told jurors during his closing argument, as he recounted to The Washington Post. “They told me not to let you see my prison arm band. I show you my prison armband. They told me not to stand in front of you representing myself.”ADVERTISING
And yet there he was — representing himself without the help of any attorneys, with a mandatory life sentence on the line. It was his fourth time on trial for the ambush shooting death of Devon English in 2006, and Bennett’s second time acting as his own lawyer. But on Monday, he made sure it would be the last.
Achieving an exceedingly rare feat, the pro se defendant with no law degree was acquitted of murder.
The jury deliberated for 81 minutes. For Bennett, it was 76 minutes too long.
“I was sitting in the holding cell thinking, after five minutes, what’s taking so long?” he said. “When the jury came in and they called me up, I already knew it was a not-guilty verdict.”
The brash confidence is a product of more than 12 years of preparation from a Pennsylvania prison, studying case law in the library by day and meticulously drafting legal briefs in his cell by night, using a flickering TV as a light source.
He told the story to The Post by phone on Wednesday evening while strolling with his goddaughter through a neighborhood park, periodically hanging up by accident because, he said, he is only just learning how to use a touch screen cellphone. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s my first time. I had to ask the kid what to do.”
His story starts on a September night in 2006, when police accused Bennett of masterminding a plot to kill 19-year-old English after losing $20 to him in a dice game; a second teenager, 18-year-old Corey Ford, was shot in the legs and the buttocks. Lamont Dade, 16, was also arrested in the shooting, to which he pleaded guilty in 2008 and was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison.
In their original statements to police, both Dade and Ford identified Bennett as the shooter — but later, at Bennett’s trial, they recanted, saying a homicide detective coerced them into making the statements.
Bennett maintained his innocence from the start. He told police he was on the phone with a friend at home when he heard the shots ring out, then ran to the scene to see what happened. But he said his original lawyer failed to introduce the phone records or call the witnesses that he believes would have supported his alibi, saving him years in prison.
His first trial in 2008 resulted in a mistrial, his second in conviction months later. As he petitioned for a third trial, his post-conviction appellate attorney lost appeal after appeal — until finally, in 2014, against the advice of every sane person in the legal system, Bennett told a judge he wanted to do it himself. He said he was tired of losing.
“They told me, if you mess up here, your tail is done,” he said. “Well, I’m not gonna mess up then. There is no room for error. This is the time you rely on yourself. They call it crunchtime in basketball, when the best player in the game gets the ball with five seconds left and it’s his last shot. He wins or loses on this shot. That’s how I felt.”
From then on, Bennett’s casual study of the legal system turned rigorous. To teach himself to write in legalese, he sought the help of his cellmate, nicknamed “Brother Mook” — a legal-savvy mentor who would rip up Bennett’s handwritten draft petitions into tiny shreds if he failed to write them in the proper format. “He was like my Yoda,” Bennett said.
Eventually, after reviewing every trial transcript and police record in his own case, he turned his attention to former Philadelphia homicide detective James Pitts, who interviewed Ford and Dade to obtain their witness statements against Bennett.
In recent years, Pitts has been accused of coercing witness statements in at least 10 cases, and in some murder cases, judges have vacated convictions because of Pitts’s misconduct, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. (Mired in scandal, he is on desk duty while the police department investigates, the Inquirer reported.) Bennett petitioned a court for a new trial on the basis that Pitts had used the same coercive tactics to obtain statements from Ford and Dade identifying him as the shooter.
A judge did not grant that request, but in 2017, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina vacated Bennett’s conviction and granted a new trial on the grounds of ineffective counsel. Bennett’s third trial last September, when he first represented himself, resulted in a hung jury — with all but one juror finding Bennett not guilty. ““If the defendant knew how close he was [to acquittal], he would have been crushed,” juror David Scott, a college professor, told the Inquirer afterward.
But Bennett said he was not crushed. By the time trial No. 4 rolled around, he was feeling more at ease than ever, as though a guilty verdict weren’t a possibility.
In his opening statement last month, he told the jury it was a case about using common sense — and asked jurors to remember a song from “Sesame Street.” He described himself as a suspect who didn’t fit the description, like Oscar the Grouch in a photo array of fruits. “One of these things just doesn’t belong here,” he sang.
“The Commonwealth will try to tell you that Oscar the Grouch belongs because Oscar the Grouch is always seen on the corner. He has a smart mouth. He’s nobody’s favorite on Sesame Street,” Bennett said. “But that doesn’t make him guilty when the evidence shows he’s not guilty.”
His case was that simple, he said. He submitted the phone records. He called the three witnesses he said corroborated his alibi. He cross-examined Ford and Dade, who again maintained Bennett was not at the scene.
And then he called Pitts.
He accused the former homicide detective of coercing statements from Ford and Dade — and questioned why, if Pitts were credible, prosecutors elected not to call him as a witness. Pitts denied the accusations. But the jury, Bennett told The Post, ultimately “saw through his hogwash.”
“Why didn’t the prosecutor call Detective Pitts?” he asked the jury, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported from the courtroom. “He’s the lead detective. He’s the head honcho. Pitts worked the witnesses for hours on end. We can’t tolerate this misconduct. We can’t tolerate these actions.”
Spokespeople for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office didn’t respond to a request for comment late Wednesday, but told the Inquirer the office disagreed with the jury’s verdict. The victim’s family has long believed Bennett was guilty, saying that every new trial is “bringing back the pain of Devon’s death,” the Inquirer reported.
“I’m still trying to cope with it. I think it is wrong. I think the whole process is unfair,” Arturo Alleyne, English’s father, told the Inquirer of Monday’s acquittal. “All of this will be cleared up by God.”
Leaving the courthouse on Monday, Bennett said the first thing he did was go home and have a home-cooked meal with his family. He’s spent his time this week re-acclimating to life on the outside, asking his 10-year-old goddaughter to teach him how to use an Android, remembering to look for cars when crossing the street.
But by Friday, he said, he plans to get back to work. He said the court-appointed attorney who was required to be on “standby” throughout his trial — in case he decided he no longer wanted to represent himself — invited him to his office to discuss how Bennett could assist with briefs or investigations. He plans to study for the bar exam, he said, and to one day have clients of his own.
He said he already knew where he thought he might open his office.
“People from our neighborhood, from low-income neighborhoods, they don’t really know the law,” he said. “But see, there are people from the legal community that don’t know about the low-income neighborhoods. They don’t know about ‘the hood,’ as they call it.
“I am that bridge.”