Philly native Hassan Bennett had always maintained his innocence, but unfortunately, our faulty criminal justice system ensured it would take him four trials and 13 years to finally prove it.
The Washington Post reports that on September 22, 2006, Bennett was accused of orchestrating the murder of his friend Devon English, 19, over a $20 dice game. Another one of his friends, Corey Ford, 18, suffered gunshot wounds to his legs and buttocks in the ensuring fracas.
In statements provided to the police, Bennett was identified as the shooter by Ford and 16-year-old Lamont Dade. But during Bennett’s trial, they backtracked and revealed that homicide detective James Pitts told them to pin the murder on Bennett.
Despite Bennett maintaining his innocence—he was adamant that he was on the phone with a friend at home when the incident took place—he was eventually convicted during a second trial in 2008. His first trial, months earlier, ended in a mistrial. Bennett asserts that his lawyer at the time failed to present phone records or witnesses that would’ve absolved him of the crime.
He petitioned for a third trial after losing multiple appeals until he was so fed up with the legal system and how it had continued to fail him that he told his judge that he was done with lawyers and wanted to represent himself.
“They told me, if you mess up here, your tail is done,” Bennett said. “Well, I’m not gonna mess up then. There is no room for error. This is the time you rely on yourself. They call it crunch time in basketball, when the best player in the game gets the ball with five seconds left and it’s his last shot. He wins or loses on this shot. That’s how I felt.”
Finally rid of apathetic and overburdened public defenders, Bennett committed himself to his craft. He combed through every trial transcript and police record in his case, taught himself legalese, and sought the tutelage of Brother Mook—his cellmate who provided invaluable legal guidance and would rip up Bennett’s draft petitions for inaccuracies.
“He was like my Yoda,” Bennett said.
But most importantly, he keyed in on Detective Pitts—the man who obtained the bogus witness statements from Ford and Dade that stole his freedom. And Pitts wasn’t exactly a man of integrity.
From the Washington Post:
In recent years, Pitts has been accused of coercing witness statements in at least 10 cases, and in some murder cases, judges have vacated convictions because of Pitts’s misconduct, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. (Mired in scandal, he is on desk duty while the police department investigates, the Inquirer reported.)
Armed with this information, Bennett petitioned for a new trial. He drew correlations between Pitts’ affinity for coercion in other cases and the method in which Pitts obtained statements from Ford and Dade.
Bennett’s request was denied, but in 2017, his conviction was vacated by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, and he was granted a new trial due to what was deemed “ineffective counsel.”
Reinvigorated by this new opportunity to reclaim his freedom, Bennett represented himself for the first time during his third trial, which resulted in a hung jury after all but one juror found Bennett not guilty.
“If the defendant knew how close he was [to acquittal], he would have been crushed,” juror David Scott told the Philadelphia Inquirer afterward.
But Bennett maintained his resolve, and by the time he was representing himself for a fourth and final time in his most recent trial, he was confident and loose in his approach. Being so close to victory before, he knew that all he needed to do was to refine his technique.
From the Post:
In his opening statement last month, he told the jury it was a case about using common sense — and asked jurors to remember a song from “Sesame Street.” He described himself as a suspect who didn’t fit the description, like Oscar the Grouch in a photo array of fruits. “One of these things just doesn’t belong here,” he sang.
“The Commonwealth will try to tell you that Oscar the Grouch belongs because Oscar the Grouch is always seen on the corner. He has a smart mouth. He’s nobody’s favorite on Sesame Street,” Bennett said. “But that doesn’t make him guilty when the evidence shows he’s not guilty.”
The case was pretty cut and dry.
He called witnesses to the stand to back up his alibi. He cross-examined Ford and Dade. He provided phone records proving he was home at the time of the shooting. And to the surprise of those in attendance, he confronted Pitts.
Wearing his blue prison uniform, he accused the former homicide detective of coercing statements from Ford and Dade — and questioned why, if Pitts were credible, prosecutors elected not to call him as a witness. Pitts denied the accusations. But the jury, Bennett told The Post, ultimately “saw through his hogwash.”
“Why didn’t the prosecutor call Detective Pitts?” he asked the jury, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported from the courtroom. “He’s the lead detective. He’s the head honcho. Pitts worked the witnesses for hours on end. We can’t tolerate this misconduct. We can’t tolerate these actions.”
13 years after having his freedom stolen from him, Bennett emerged triumphant. He was acquitted of all charges.
Since his return to society on Monday, he’s poured himself into his family while getting acclimated to a world that was forced to leave him behind. There’s technology to learn, new family members to be introduced to and seasons of Game of Thrones to binge watch. But he won’t be leaving his passion for the pursuit of justice in the past.
Bennett plans to use the experience he accrued as his own lawyer to help other incarcerated individuals. His court-appointed attorney has recruited him to assist with briefs and investigations of other cases, and he intends to study the bar exam so that one day he can be the lawyer that other inmates so desperately need.
“People from our neighborhood, from low-income neighborhoods, they don’t really know the law,” he said. “But see, there are people from the legal community that don’t know about the low-income neighborhoods. They don’t know about ‘the hood,’ as they call it. I am that bridge.”
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office disagrees with the jury’s verdict, as does the family of Devon English.
“I’m still trying to cope with it. I think it is wrong,” Arturo Alleyne, English’s father, told the Inquirer. “I think the whole process is unfair. All of this will be cleared up by God.”