A California Court of Appeal in Santa Ana this week granted rare habeas corpus relief to a prison inmate incarcerated for a special-circumstances homicide, this one the 2006 Super Bowl Sunday robbery and murder of an Irvine cocaine dealer.
For 47-year-old Stephen Joseph Bennett, the ruling means his sentence will go from spending the remainder of his life in prison to winning the possibility of parole someday.
In 2008, an Orange County jury convicted Bennett and three buddies—Brandon Turner, Deshawn Turner and Bernard Smith—of killing Brian Gray (a.k.a. “PC”) and fleeing back to Oceanside with the victim’s narcotics.
Bennett knew Gray, had called him to negotiate a meeting, understood his co-conspirators’ robbery plan, and drove the crew to the victim’s apartment complex on Culver and Michelson.
But though Bennett parked his vehicle across the street at a car wash and did not join the Turner brothers or Smith for their ambush of Gray, prosecutors succeed in obtaining a conviction as if he’d pulled the trigger under an aider and abettor theory that he was a major participant who acted with reckless indifference to human life.
A Nov. 2010 court of appeal validated the conviction and punishment after the screaming drug dealer had been chased running through the apartment complex parking lot and gunned down while neighbors watched in horror.
But the same court—indeed, two of the same three justices—recently re-examined the issues and reached a different conclusion: Supreme Court advances in case law pertaining to the definitions of “major participant” as well as reckless acts indifferent to life required them to vacate the sentence, a move opposed by the California Attorney General’s office.
“[There is] no evidence Bennett knew either Smith of Brandon Turner had any history of violence or violent propensities or presented any risk they would shoot or behave violently toward Gray during the planned robbery,” the justices wrote in their 30-page ruling. “There was also no evidence presented that Bennett observed anything before the events leading up to the robbery that would have indicated his codefendants were likely to engage in lethal violence. No evidence was presented the codefendants discussed shooting anyone or engaging in violence. In fact, the opposite appears to have been true, as Bennett told police and his friends that the plan was to rob Gray, not shoot him . . . [His] culpability does not suffice to support the special circumstances finding.”
The appellate court backed the robbery and first-degree murder convictions for Bennett “because he planned and joined in the criminal enterprise” that ended with a death, “but that is where his criminal liability ends.”
The inmate, who has already been incarcerated for 12 years, will be resentenced in coming months consistent with the appellate opinion.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; earned six dozen other reporting awards; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; featured in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.