The first time that Hassan Bennett went on trial in a 2006 homicide, the case ended in a mistrial over jury tampering. At his second trial, in December 2008, he was convicted — but the verdict was overturned when he successfully argued that his trial lawyer was ineffective.
Last August, he chose to act as his own lawyer during his third trial. The jury deadlocked, and jurors later acknowledged that all but one wanted to acquit Bennett.
"If the defendant knew how close he was [to being acquitted], he would have been crushed,” David Scott, a college professor who was among the jurors who believed he was not guilty, said at the time.
On Thursday, Bennett tried again.
Opening his fourth trial on the murder charge and related counts, and dressed in a blue prison-issued uniform, the now 36-year-old implored jurors to pay close attention to the evidence, including his contention that he was on the phone in a residence when prosecutors say two gunmen ambushed Devon English, 19, and Corey Ford, 18, as they sat in a car on a West Philadelphia street around 1 a.m. on Sept. 22, 2006.
English, who was shot in the head, back, and a shoulder while seated in the driver’s seat of his car on Robinson Street near Lansdowne Avenue, was pronounced dead hours later. Ford survived gunshots to his buttocks and legs.
Another man, Lamont Dade, pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution in 2008, saying he helped Bennett shoot the victims. He is serving a 25- to 50-year prison sentence.
Assistant District Attorney Ashley Toczylowski told the jury of seven women and five men that much can change over 13 years, but not the fact that Bennett is guilty of masterminding the fatal ambush. His motive? He was mad that English had beat him out of $20 in a dice game, she said.
“A dice game,” she stressed. “Getting revenge was worth more to this defendant than the life of Devon English."
But the prosecutor cautioned the jury that among the things that have changed was that Dade, who had pleaded guilty, and Ford, the surviving victim, no longer want to cooperate with the District Attorney’s Office. Both gave police statements naming Bennett as the triggerman who instigated the bloodshed. But as they did in last year’s trial, she expects them to recant those statements.
Dade and Ford "have made it abundantly clear that they do not want to testify. … But the law is smart,” Toczylowski said, explaining to the jurors that they are allowed to disregard the testimony Dade and Ford give during this trial in favor of previous statements and testimony in which they implicated Bennett.
“That’s the evidence that proves the defendant’s guilt beyond all doubts,” she said.
Bennett suggested that those witnesses were manipulated by homicide detectives to make incriminating statements against him. He told the jurors that they will learn how long the witnesses were held in small, windowless rooms at Police Headquarters and interrogated.
“It’s like a closet. It’s locked. You’re alone,” he said.
Before opening arguments, Arturo Alleyne, English’s father, had said he was hopeful this fourth trial would finally result in Bennett’s conviction for taking his son’s life.
“"All these retrials are bringing back the pain of Devon’s death,” Alleyne, a city paramedic, said in the hallway of the Stout Center for Criminal Justice.
Among those listening in the courtroom was a tour group of judges, lawyers, and legal professionals from Milan, Italy. During a break in the proceedings, Common Pleas Court Judge J. Scott O’Keefe stepped down from the bench to answer their questions and chat about the unusual trial.
One man asked the judge why Bennett was wearing his prison uniform at the trial. It was Bennett’s decision, the judge said.