After four years in prison, Christopher Lee Bennett is about to become the second Ohio prisoner in as many months to earn his freedom thanks to the efforts of the Ohio Innocence Project, based out of the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
On Monday afternoon, the Ohio Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling denying Bennett’s innocence petition filed in 2004 by the Innocence Project. Bennett was originally sentenced to a nine year prison term, after having been convicted in 2002 of aggravated vehicular homicide. In 2004, the Ohio Innocence Project presented a slate of new evidence to the Stark County Court, including DNA evidence, showing he could not have been the driver in the accident and requesting a new trial. The court denied the petition.
"Today, the Court of Appeals ruled that the lower court abused its discretion in finding that Bennett was not entitled to legal relief here," said Mark Godsey, faculty director for the Ohio Innocence Project and UC associate professor of law on Monday. "The Court of Appeals held that the Innocence Project carried its burden in demonstrating that a ‘manifest injustice’ had occurred in this case. The court remanded the case to the lower court with instructions to reverse the conviction."
Lawyers from the Ohio Innocence Project expect to file papers to get Bennett released on bail no later than Tuesday. Stark County authorities will have to decide if they want to refile charges against Bennett. If so, the entire case would have to be presented again before a Stark County judge and jury.
Bennett will join Clarence Elkins as the second prisoner to be exonerated and to gain release from prison thanks to the Ohio Innocence Project. Elkins was exonerated by Summit County authorities in mid-December after the Ohio Innocence Project was able to prove that he could not have committed the 1998 murder/rape for which he was serving a life sentence.
The Ohio Innocence Project, based out of the UC College of Law’s Rosenthal Institute for Justice and relying on the efforts of UC law students, has only been in existence since 2003.
Bennett’s case was the first they presented in court.
Bennett pled guilty in the 2001 death of Ronald Young after the van in which they were riding crashed. Bennett, however, suffered significant head injuries in the crash and has no memory of the accident. Bennett now acknowledges that he pled guilty because with no memories of the accident, he believed he had no way to defend himself.
Evidence initially developed by the prosecution suggested that Bennett was the driver, but additional new evidence – including DNA analysis and new witness testimony – produced through investigation by UC law students from the Ohio Innocence Project made the case that Bennett could not have been behind the wheel. Students were able to track down the van in which the accident occurred six days before it was scheduled to be destroyed by the impound lot. They quickly trained themselves in DNA collection procedures, and then, like a CSI unit, collected the DNA from the van themselves. That DNA ultimately led to the court’s recent decision remanding Bennett’s case back to the trial court on evidence of actual innocence.
"The new evidence demonstrated Bennett’s innocence," says Godsey, who is also a former federal prosecutor. "The only logical conclusion that can be drawn from the DNA test results is that Chris Bennett was the passenger, not the driver. All of the other evidence in the case, including new testimony from the first witness to reach the scene, also supports Chris Bennett’s innocence."
DNA evidence from the passenger’s side of the dashboard in the van that crashed was submitted for review with Cincinnati’s Hoxworth Blood Center. It showed that blood found in a paper towel and around a rock found deep within a crack where the windshield and the dashboard met came from Bennett, and Bennett only. Additionally, a small cluster of hair and scalp found within the passenger’s side defrost vent also was a match for Bennett.
Finally, Young had no injuries consistent with a windshield impact or that were producing the type of blood loss pattern seen on the windshield.
Bennett says the only reason he pled guilty in the first place was because he had no memory of the accident, and the prosecution had a witness that placed Bennett on or around the driver’s seat when he arrived at the accident. Young’s body was found on the floor between the passenger’s side and center console.
Undaunted by the prosecution’s witness, and following the DNA evidence, the Ohio Innocence Project students interviewed residents near the crash scene, eventually locating Lee Meadows. Meadows was actually on the scene before the prosecution’s witness. Meadows states in an affidavit that he arrived only seconds after the accident, and that he found Bennett in the passenger’s side seat of the van with his right arm extended out the open van window.
Bennett’s counsel at the time of his prosecution neither sought out additional witnesses for interview nor pursued DNA or accident reconstruction expert testimony.
"This is exactly the kind of case we envisioned when the Ohio Innocence Project was first considered," says Godsey. "Our students are gaining invaluable experience in the inner-workings of the justice system while at the same time performing a public service by working to prove or disprove the claims of those imprisoned who are able to make the strongest cases for their innocence." John Cranley, a member of Cincinnati City Council and the administrative director for the Ohio Innocence Project, argued the appeal in this case before the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Canton.
The mission of the Ohio Innocence Project is not only to identify Ohio prisoners who might be innocent and obtain their release, but also to provide practical legal experience for law students that cannot be matched in the classroom or in most legal jobs available to law students.