A single holdout juror prevented the acquittal this month of a West Philadelphia man who represented himself in a retrial after serving 12 years for a murder he says he didn't commit, according to two of the panel members.
Because the juror — the foreman — was unconvinced, the judge declared a mistrial on the fourth day of deliberations Sept. 13, and Hassan Bennett remains jailed awaiting another retrial.
"If the defendant knew how close he was, he would have been crushed," said juror David Scott, a college professor.
The foreman, who agreed to speak to the Inquirer and Daily News on the condition that he not be publicly identified, called the deliberation process "one of the hardest things" he ever had endured, but stood by his decision.
"When just looking at the facts and the testimony that was presented to us at the trial, the prosecution proved the defendant's guilt without a reasonable doubt," said the man.
The final vote — two of the jurors interviewed said it was 11-1, but the foreman remembered it as 10-2 — seems to validate Bennett's unusual decision to represent himself, and it could raise new questions about the District Attorney's Office's plan to retry him for a fourth time, when Bennett again could call a controversial officer as a key witness.
Bennett, 35, is charged with second-degree murder and related counts in the slaying of Devon English, 19, and the shooting of Corey Ford, 18, who were ambushed as they sat in a car parked near 61st Street and Lansdowne Avenue in the early morning of Sept. 22, 2006.
Another man, Lamont Dade, pleaded guilty in 2008 to taking part in the shootings and is serving a 25-to-50-year prison sentence.
Bennett could not be reached for comment after being returned to prison.
During the two-week trial at the city's Criminal Justice Center, he chose to wear a blue prison uniform rather than street clothes. He impressed jurors with his courtroom prowess when questioning and cross-examining witnesses, the three jurors said in interviews this month with the Inquirer and Daily News.
He was particularly harsh toward homicide detective James Pitts, whom he accused of coercing Ford and other witnesses into falsely incriminating him in the shootings. Similar allegations have been made against Pitts in unrelated cases.
"We all thought [Bennett] did a good job representing himself," said juror Scott, the professor. "It's not that we didn't think he was guilty of something. It's just that the prosecutor did not present a case that was without reasonable doubt."
A second juror, Robert Reeves, said the case presented by Assistant District Attorney Tracie Gaydos was hobbled by too many unanswered questions. He noted that the search warrant executed by police at the West Philadelphia home where Bennett was living at the time of the shootings failed to yield the gun and clothing they sought.
"They couldn't even prove that he was really there, as far as I'm concerned," said Reeves, 47. "I think the young man was there [at the crime scene], but they just didn't prove it. It's all about proof. What Tracie produced to us was not enough of anything. If she had the evidence that he was guilty, we would have found him guilty."
Of Pitts, Reeves said: "I believe he was being rough with those guys. He was being nonchalant [on the witness stand] trying to play down his role. But I honestly believe he was using his physical stature and his badge to try to get the truth out of those guys and was being real abusive with them."
The foreman said that although he was outnumbered in the final vote, the environment in the jury room remained respectful. "Considering what was at stake, I think everybody was rather civil and pretty good with each other about letting each other voice their thoughts," he said.
Pitts appeared credible, and the initial statements some witnesses gave police implicating Bennett — which they recanted at the retrial — were also credible, said the foreman.
The jury had nine women and three men. Five jurors were white, five were African American, and two were of other races.
In a statement to the Inquirer and Daily News, the District Attorney's Office noted that Bennett's first trial resulted in a mistrial because of jury tampering by the defense and the second was a conviction later overturned because of mistakes by his lawyer.
"The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office feels, based on the overwhelming evidence and the facts of the case, that a fourth trial is necessary to protect the public and give the victim and the victim's family justice," the statement said.
Tina Lee, an aunt of the homicide victim, said Bennett's courtroom skills and his ability to get witnesses, including Ford, the surviving gunshot victim, to recant their initial statements, was the result of his having spent 12 years in the prison library polishing his act and the fear engendered by him and his associates on the streets of West Philadelphia.
"If I was in for 12 years, I'd be in that library too, trying to find a loophole to get my butt out of there," said Lee, who added that the jury was "confused" to the point of nearly letting Bennett walk.
Lee, who said she promised her late sister and her nephew's mother that she would attend the trial and see to it that justice is done, hopes the next jury will close the prison doors on Bennett for good.
"This boy done murdered my nephew three times," she said, referring to the number of trials. "How many times can you kill a person? How many times do I have to hear how many times he was shot? How many times do I have to look at pictures of that car? Let him rest, and stop digging him up. This is deplorable."