The words we bring you this time are not the words of a court. Instead, they are the words of Hassan Bennett, a man from Philadelphia, USA. What makes his story unique is that, with the spectre of a mandatory life sentence before him, and having already spent 13 years in prison, he appeared for himself, in full prison garb, to argue a fourth trial on the same count – and he won.
Hassan Bennett will go down in legal history as the man who appeared for himself in a fourth trial on the same facts, despite facing a mandatory life sentence if he lost. And he won.
The Philadelphia man, who has no formal legal training, prepared for his performance in court with great thoroughness and was confident that he had succeeded in convincing the jury. As Bennett tells the story to the Washington Post, after the trial he had to wait while jurors considered their verdict. They took 81 minutes. In his view, that was 76 minutes too long. So convinced was he of the persuasiveness of the evidence he had given the jury, not to mention the power of his own words, that he thought five minutes should have been enough.
His trial follows the shooting death of one man and the injury of a second in 2006. Police said Bennett had masterminded the plot and the injured man, plus a second man, sent to jail for 25 – 50 years for the same shooting, both initially claimed that Bennett was the shooter.
However, at Bennett’s first trial, they took back their words and said that a detective assigned to the case had “coerced” them into making these statements.
Bennett continued to claim he was innocent, saying he was on the phone with a friend at home when he heard the shots and then he ran to the scene to see what was going on. His first lawyer did not put the phone records before court, nor did the lawyer call the witnesses whom Bennett believed would have supported this version.
His first trial, in 2008, was declared a mis-trial. Months later he was convicted after a second trial. Bennett, disappointed with the showing of his lawyer, then felt he had to do the job himself. He asked for a new trial, focusing on the detective and his coercive tactics, as well as what he said was the uselessness of his previous attorney. Eventually he was allowed a new trial (it would be his third) on the grounds that his defence counsel was “ineffective”. Last year, at his third trial, he represented himself but the jury was not able to reach agreement on the outcome and yet another trial was needed. Little did he know at the time how close he had come to success and that just one juror had not been convinced by his words.
Now more determined than ever, he prepared yet more thoroughly for his fourth trial. He put up the phone records and called the witnesses for corroboration. He cross-examined the two men who had previously fingered him but who since maintained that they were forced by the controversial detective into giving evidence that was not true.
Bennett even called the detective himself to the stand, asking some uncomfortable questions. It is all rather like a movie, and in fact the unofficial lawyer's opening and closing address to the jury sound as though they have come direct from a US courtroom drama.
In the wake of the not-guilty decision, the district attorney’s office said it disagreed with the jury’s verdict. But Bennett has other things on his mind: he now wants to study law and have clients of his own.