Akron Beacon Journal

Jan. 24, 2006
Appeals court orders new trial in fatal crash
DNA evidence indicates that convicted man, 30, was passenger, not driver, in 2001 wreck in Stark

By Phil Trexler, Beacon Journal staff writer

After his amnesia cleared in prison, Christopher Bennett begged someone to test the blood on a van dashboard, sure it would prove he wasn't the driver in a fatal crash.

The Ohio Innocence Project, which works to free the wrongly convicted, took up the challenge and on Monday, an appellate court granted a new trial for the Stark County man.

The decision comes about three years after Bennett pleaded guilty to charges that he was the driver of a van that crashed and killed his best friend, passenger Ronald Young, 42.

Bennett, who turned 30 last week while in the Mansfield Correctional Institution, is expected to return to Stark County to await a decision by the prosecutor's office.

Christopher Bennett
Christopher Bennett
Prosecutor John Ferrero said Monday that his office is reviewing the appellate court decision before responding. He said he would issue a statement today.

Prosecutors have fought Bennett's efforts for freedom since 2003. In light of the unanimous decision by the 5th District Court of Appeals, prosecutors can either retry Bennett or dismiss the indictment.

Mark Godsey, a University of Cincinnati law professor and director of the Ohio Innocence Project, said prosecutors would be hard pressed to win a conviction against Bennett based on the DNA evidence, a reconstruction of the crash and the discovery of a key witness.

Overwhelming evidence

``It will be difficult for them to retry him because the evidence is overwhelmingly in Chris' favor,'' Godsey said.

Bennett has served about three years of a nine-year sentence he received in February 2003 after pleading guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide, aggravated vehicular assault and other charges.

About three months later, Bennett tried to retract his guilty plea, claiming he had regained his memory, which he had lost because of severe injuries in the May 2001 crash.

``He wrote to us and said `I had amnesia, but now I remember smashing the passenger side windshield and I guarantee if you track down that van, you'll see my blood on the passenger side dashboard.' And he was right,'' Godsey said.

According to Godsey, an investigation by the Innocence Project, composed of UC law school students, showed that Young, not Bennett, was the driver.

A hearing was held after the investigation, but Stark County Common Pleas Judge Lee Sinclair denied Bennett's bid to drop his guilty plea and dismiss the case.

Because neither man was wearing a seat belt before the crash on Baywood Street in Paris Township, Young and Bennett were tossed around inside the van. Young died at the scene and Bennett suffered head injuries that left him unconscious. The van drove over two small trees and struck three parked pickup trucks and a garage, where another man was working on a truck.

Witness reports

A witness signed a statement saying he believed Bennett was the driver. But another witness, who did not offer a statement to investigators in 2001, came forward to say Young was the driver.

Bennett testified at a hearing in 2004 that he fled the area and avoided trial for two years fearing he was going to prison and knowing he was innocent, but with only a foggy memory of the crash. He said his father, based on the witness statements, believed he was the driver.

The Innocence Project students recovered the van at a junkyard six days before it was to be destroyed. They found a bloody, smashed passenger side windshield with DNA too degraded to test. However, a bloody paper towel was found wedged near the windshield and the blood was Bennett's.

Reconstruction expert Rickey Stansifer testified that it was impossible for the driver to be tossed against the passenger side windshield. Further, he said, Young's injuries were consistent with someone struck by a deployed air bag, while Bennett's injuries were consistent with striking a windshield.

The van was equipped with only a driver's side air bag.

Appellate judges Julie Edwards, John Boggins and William Hoffman were critical of the findings of a state crash expert, State Highway Patrol Trooper Toby Wagner, who contended that Bennett was the driver.

The panel wrote in its ruling that it was ``troubled'' by Wagner's failure to look at Bennett's complete medical file.

``We do not mean to insinuate that (Bennett) has proven he was not the driver of the van,'' Edwards wrote for the majority. ``(However) this is the rare and extraordinary case in which the defendant should be permitted to withdraw his guilty plea.... To fail to do otherwise would constitute a manifest injustice.''

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