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After 13 years in prison and four trials, inmate who defended himself acquitted in 2006 West Philly murder

Hassan Bennett was found not guilty of committing a 2006 murder for which he was tried four times and served as his own attorney during the last two trials. After deliberating one hour and 21 minutes, a jury cleared him on all counts.

Hassan Bennett, right, is overcome with joy as he hugs his godmother Jacqueline Grasty, left, the moment he arrived back at the home he grew up in on 61st Street.  He has been incarcerated since 2006. On Monday May 6, 2019, Hassan, representing himself, was acquitted in his fourth trial over a 2006 murder.
Hassan Bennett, right, is overcome with joy as he hugs his godmother Jacqueline Grasty, left, the moment he arrived back at the home he grew up in on 61st Street. He has been incarcerated since 2006. On Monday May 6, 2019, Hassan, representing himself, was acquitted in his fourth trial over a 2006 murder.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Hassan Bennett always insisted that he was innocent. Not just when he was first arrested, days after the September 2006 murder of one man and the shooting of another in West Philadelphia, but throughout his first, second, and third trials for the crimes.

For more than a dozen years, Bennett sat in prison, waiting for justice and working to win it. The first prosecution ended in mistrial, and the second brought a guilty verdict, overturned on appeal. Bennett served as his own lawyer for his third trial last year, falling one jury vote short of an acquittal.

And when his fourth trial began last month, with Bennett again representing himself, the defendant opted to wear his prison uniform each day in the courtroom.

On Monday, after deliberating for just 81 minutes, a jury of seven women and five men brought his journey to an end: They acquitted him on all counts.

Bennett erupted in joy, and hugged his standby attorney when the verdict was read in a near-empty courtroom in the Stout Center for Criminal Justice.

“Justice was finally served,” said Camile May, 36, pumping his fist, and joining a handful of Bennett’s relatives and friends who raced to the building and celebrated in the lobby. “I’m not surprised. But I am surprised that it took so long for the truth to come out. It’s a shame how if you don’t have money and you’re a black man, you get caught up in the system."

When Bennett, 36, was released several hours later, he walked through the front door of the Criminal Justice Center still wearing his blue prison uniform.

“I feel the whole process of changing clothes and hiding your armband is all a sham, because everyone knows you’re locked up," he said. "I’m going to give you the bold truth. That’s what I did.”

Bennett’s standby lawyer, Ben Cooper, said it was a credit to Bennett’s preparation.

“This is very rare. Most pro-se defendants don’t have success because of their lack of training and lack of experience," Cooper said after leaving the courtroom. "Hassan took it upon himself to learn the law, to learn the rules of evidence, to learn how to cross-examine witnesses.”

Bennett, a graduate of Overbrook High School, said he taught himself the law.

“I stayed in the [prison] law library. I read every book I got my hands on, whether it was law work or history," he said. "And I would practice and review other lawyers’ writings, then I would write. My biggest hurdle was overcoming the naysayers and the myths.”

His case also was helped by the mounting credibility problems of a former Philadelphia homicide detective, James Pitts, who worked the case and has since been accused in lawsuits, court filings, and Internal Affairs reports of forcibly coercing statements from suspects and witnesses.

Bennett’s case stemmed from the Sept. 22, 2006, murder of one of Bennett’s friends and the wounding of another, who were ambushed while sitting in a parked car in West Philadelphia. Devon English, 19, died from multiple gunshot wounds. Corey Ford, 18, survived bullets to the buttocks and legs. Bennett was arrested three days after the shootings and had been jailed since.

Bennett maintained he was at home making a phone call when he heard rapid gunfire and went outside to the crime scene near Robinson Street and Lansdowne Avenue to investigate.

His first trial, in 2008, ended in a mistrial due to jury tampering, and he was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole after his second trial later that year. That conviction was overturned on appeal when Bennett successfully argued that he had ineffective counsel.

Last week, he told the jury — as he did during his trial last year — that Pitts had coerced incriminating statements from Ford and Lamont Dade, Bennett’s codefendant, who pleaded guilty in 2008 and is now serving a 25- to 50-year sentence.

According to their initial statements, which were read to the jury, Dade shot English in the head and body and took money from his pocket afterward, while Bennett shot Ford multiple times. Both Ford and Dade recanted their statements in court last week and testified that Pitts forced them to identify Bennett as the shooter. Bennett called Pitts to the stand. He disputed their claims, but Bennett challenged his testimony.

“Why didn’t the prosecutor call Detective Pitts? He’s the lead detective. He’s the head honcho,” Bennett said in his closing argument on Friday. “Pitts worked the witnesses for hours on end. … We can’t tolerate this misconduct. We can’t tolerate these actions.”

Assistant District Attorney Ashley Toczylowski told the jury that neither Bennett nor the witnesses mentioned Pitts’ name until six years ago. She asked the jurors to believe the statements Ford and Dade gave police shortly after the shootings because it was then that they spoke the truth.

She said Bennett’s motivation to kill English stemmed from losing $20 to him in a dice game, and that he enlisted the then-16-year-old Dade to help him.

After the verdict Monday, a spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner said: "While we disagree with the jury’s verdict, we appreciate their service and respect their decision. We have no further comment at this time.”

Bennett’s is the latest in a string of cases to collapse as a result of Pitts’ involvement. In March, Dwayne Thorpe was freed after serving 10 years of a life sentence after his lawyer got his conviction dismissed in part because of Pitts.

Nafis Pinkney, who was arrested by Pitts, was found not guilty of committing a double murder in 2013. Another man confessed in 2016 to the crime and is awaiting trial. The City of Philadelphia paid Pinkney $750,000 in an out-of-court settlement in 2017. Pitts has since been reassigned to a desk job where he does not have contact with the public. (He could not be reached after the verdict Monday.)

The verdict devastated English’s family members, who were not in court Monday. “I’m still trying to cope with it. I think it is wrong. I think the whole process is unfair,” said Arturo Alleyne, English’s father. “All of this will be cleared up by God.”

Tina Lee, English’s aunt, predicted a dim future for Bennett. “He’s not going to get away with this. The law let him get away with it, but God will not let him get away with it. He will pay and that’s all I can say. It won’t be by my hand, but he will pay for what he did.”

Bennett’s supporters said justice had been done.

“He did 13 years for a crime he did not commit, and clearly that came out and we won,” said Gloria Easley, 39, Bennett’s aunt. She blasted Pitts and wondered why he was still on the force, albeit on desk duty. “By the grace of God it all worked out in the right favor.”

A few hours after the verdict, Bennett was standing by himself outside the Criminal Justice Center, holding his box of legal papers, waiting for his family to take him home to his West Philadelphia neighborhood. Officers who passed by eyed the man wearing the light blue prison uniform shirt with “DOC” on the back.

Bennett said he has accepted a job offer from Cooper, his standby counsel, to do investigative and other work similar to that of a paralegal. But the experience of winning his freedom has him thinking about college and law school.

“I want to do some motivational speaking and spread legal knowledge. That’s my game plan. I want to network and go to rec centers, schools," he said. "I want to help other people that are innocent and help other people understand their rights, especially people from my neighborhood. So, I have a lot of work to do.”