A year ago, Hassan Bennett walked out of Philadelphia’s criminal courthouse with a box of legal papers, wearing the blue prisoner uniform of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
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The Overbrook High School graduate had spent more than 4,600 days in state prison doing life without parole before — acting as his own lawyer — he convinced a Philadelphia jury that he was not guilty of a 2006 murder. The jury deliberated 81 minutes before reaching its verdict a year ago Wednesday.
Bennett also had represented himself during a 2018 retrial in the same murder, which ended in a mistrial when he fell one jury vote short of being acquitted, according to three jurors interviewed by The Inquirer. After four trials, he lives with relatives in Philadelphia and aspires to attend law school.
“Somebody should give you a scholarship,” the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Society Hill, told Bennett on WWDB Radio shortly after his acquittal. “Someone is going to want to have you, just for bragging rights.”
In the last year, Bennett, 37, has met with movie production companies and accepted invitations to tell his story to high school students and at churches as far away as Los Angeles.
“Every place I spoke gave me a standing ovation,” said Bennett. “Every place.
“It’s an inspirational story that people want to hear. They feel that if I did what I did, then anything is possible.”
Bennett said that after tiring of the whirlwind of attention following his acquittal, he’s now settled into helping others caught up in the criminal justice system. In late February, he was hired by the Defender Association of Philadelphia as a client advocate to link pretrial defendants with social services such as drug and alcohol counseling.
As one of five client advocates, he estimates that he’s helped more than 25 people by linking them with stabilizing services such as mental health and substance abuse treatment and job training programs, and helping them get driver’s licenses and identification documents.
“You don’t have to wait to be sentenced to start getting these resources. You don’t have to wait to be sentenced for us to help you, for us to help you achieve your goals,” Bennett said. “I’m not just helping them get out of jail. When you do this kind of work, you’re helping them become productive and stay out of jail.”
Andrew Pappas, assistant chief of the defender association’s Municipal Court Pretrial Unit, said Bennett is especially adept at meeting clients in jail and helping to guide them toward bail and back to the community to await their trials.
“There’s not a lot of people that have the lived experience that he has, having gone through the system and ultimately being exonerated,” Pappas said. “When he goes into the prison to interview our clients, he’s really able to make that connection with them, because he’s lived exactly what they’re living right now.”
It is so rare for criminal defendants to represent themselves in court — known as pro se representation — that no database exists to document the outcomes of such cases, said Jules Epstein, director of advocacy programs at the Temple University Beasley School of Law.
“It’s a very, very small percentage of any kind of case, and it’s a very, very small percentage of murder cases, where people represent themselves,” Epstein said. “For lot of reasons, if you try it, it’s a really bad idea. But some people do. Sadly, one of the reasons people do it is because of a distrust of court-appointed lawyers.”
Bennett had nothing but time and determination when he began investigating his case while serving his life sentence at SCI Greene in Waynesburg, hours away from Philadelphia near the West Virginia border.
“I didn’t just sit down and play checkers, chess, and basketball all day,” he said. “I applied myself to grow mentally, spiritually, and educationally.”
He pored over the facts and notes of testimony of his case, which stemmed from the Sept. 22, 2006, shooting of two of his friends ambushed just before midnight while seated in a car in West Philadelphia. Devon English, 19, died. Corey Ford, 18, survived.
Bennett maintains he was on the phone talking to a friend when he heard the gunshots and went to the scene to learn what happened. Three days later, he was arrested and charged.
Lawyers represented him in his first two trials; the first ended in a mistrial, the second in a guilty verdict and life sentence. It was then that Bennett began using the prison law library to study — not just his case, but law in general. He even committed prison violations to get sent to the hole so he could study without being disturbed, he recalled.
Writing and mailing petitions from prison resulted in winning the right to have a new trial in 2017 based in part on his arguments that his lawyer in the second trial was ineffective for not introducing the phone records from the night of the shooting and for not calling as a witness the woman with whom Bennett had been talking.
Getting used to freedom was harder than he expected, said Bennett, who estimated that he got just six to 10 hours of sleep during the first three weeks after he was acquitted.
Racked by anxiety and sleep deprivation, he fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed a rental car May 19 after appearing as a guest on a podcast in Chester. He spent a week in Lankenau Medical Center with a cracked femur and head bleeding.
“I don’t know why I couldn’t go to sleep,” he said. “I wasn’t used to being home, it was a foreign environment to me.