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Pennsylvania Prisoner Acquitted of Murder After 13-Year Battle – by Defending Himself in Retrial

by Kevin Bliss

Representing himself during a fourth trial on a murder charge, Hassan Bennett was acquitted and released following a 13-year legal fight – an extraordinary feat.

Bennett, 36, was serving a life sentence without parole for the ambush shooting death of a friend, Devon English. His defense was that former Philadelphia detective James Pitts coerced a witness, Corey Ford, and codefendant Lamont Dade to testify against him.

Pitts had since been accused in other cases of coercing witnesses, and his credibility was affected. The jury quickly found Bennett not guilty on May 6, 2019.

Bennett was accused of organizing the murder of 19-year-old English on September 22, 2006. The prosecution alleged that he enlisted then-16-year-old Dade into helping him get revenge for losing $20 in a dice game – that they ambushed English and Ford in a parking lot in West Philadelphia, and Dade shot English multiple times, killing him, while Bennett shot Ford in the legs and buttocks.

Bennett’s first trial ended in a mistrial in 2008, due to jury tampering; his second that same year resulted in a conviction and life sentence. Bennett appealed based on ineffective assistance of counsel. He went on to represent himself and, although his third trial ended in a hung jury, he was able to win a not-guilty verdict in his fourth trial, in which he testified that he was at home when he heard gunshots and went to investigate.

Bennett subpoenaed Ford and Dade, who both testified that Detective Pitts had coerced their original statements. He also cross-examined Pitts, attacking his credibility and reminding the jury that the prosecution had not called him as a witness. The detective’s previous witness coercion had resulted in the dismissal of Dwayne Thorpe’s conviction and life sentence in March 2019, a $750,000 settlement for Nafis Pinkney’s wrongful conviction in 2013, and several other internal affairs investigations and lawsuits.

Bennett, a high school graduate, said he taught himself the law. “I stayed in the law library. I read every book I got my hands on, whether it was law work or history. And I would practice and review other lawyers’ writings, then I would write,” he said.

He wore his prison uniform during his fourth and final trial.

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

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

Cooper was so impressed that he offered Bennett a job as a legal worker.

Detective Pitts reportedly remains employed with the police department, though he has been assigned to a desk job. 

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Sources: philly.com, abajournal.com