Mississippi High Court rejects appeal of man sentenced for killing his 10-week-old son

Published: Nov. 16, 2023 at 6:28 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A man sentenced to death 20 years ago for killing his 10-week-old son has lost an appeal in the state’s highest court.

On Thursday, the Mississippi Supreme Court rejected Devin Bennett’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling that he did not have ineffective counsel during the sentencing phase of his 2003 trial.

Bennett was sentenced to death that year after being convicted of the murder of his son Brandon.

He filed a motion for post-conviction relief in 2006, saying his attorney failed to include evidence of his mental health disorders and substance abuse. The court ultimately determined Bennett was entitled to relief, and the matter was remanded back to the circuit court.

Following a 2021 hearing, the court ruled that Rainer’s decision to not mention Bennett’s history of mental health issues was “ultimately unsuccessful” but did not mean it was “constitutionally ineffective.”

Justices agreed, saying that had the attorney changed his strategy, it would not have led to a different outcome.

“In fact, although Bennett had 15 years to assemble an alternative mitigation case, we agree with the trial judge that the additional evidence would have hurt Bennett more than it helped him,” the court wrote.

Bennett argued several points on appeal, including the fact his attorney had not been involved in any prior death row cases, and that the circuit court compounded the constitutional error by excluding “relevant mitigation evidence in post-conviction.”

That evidence included the testimony of two witnesses who lived out of state. The court denied the depositions, which would have included information on Bennett’s childhood, where they say he was “sometimes without clothing and food.”

Bennett also argued that his attorney did not investigate claims that he was abused as a child and suffered from substance abuse and minor psychological orders as a result.

For its part, the lower court said it did allow his father to testify about his son’s difficult childhood. The court also found evidence that Bennett did suffer from ADHD.

However, the circuit court also pointed out that Bennett refused to speak with or meet a psychologist or psychiatrist and would not let his attorney allow prior treatment centers to share Bennett’s medical history.

Justices, meanwhile, question whether sharing that information during the sentencing phase would have resulted in a different outcome, saying the evidence could be a double-edged sword.

“Evidence about mental health problems... often possesses a double-edged nature, as jurors may conclude that the defendant simply is beyond rehabilitation,” the court wrote, citing another case.

Justices went on to say that the additional evidence could have revealed “documentation of persistent misconduct and impulsive criminal and violent behavior... For example, a psychological report from age 11 showed that despite showing at least average intelligence... Bennett reportedly ‘disrespects and defies authority figures, initiates fights, bullies, and is aggressive both physically and verbally.’”

[READ NOW: MS death row inmate ends hunger strike]

Records from a treatment center showed similar behaviors, with Bennett being expelled numerous times for misconduct, including allegedly sexually harassing four other residents, even after his son’s death.

Those records aside, the court also points out in their 26-page ruling that Bennett gave several different versions of what happened to his son to police and hospital officials.

Brandon was 12 pounds at the time of his death. An expert said he suffered two skull fractures and multiple hemorrhages “consistent with a direct blow to the head.”

Among stories, Bennett told authorities, his son fell out of his car seat, was accidentally kicked off the bed while in his car seat, and suffocated as a result of bedding.

“Delving into Bennett’s past at the sentencing hearing could easily have led a jury to conclude he was persistently narcissistic, dishonest, short-tempered, and violent,” the court wrote. “While it is possible a jury might have taken pity on Bennett given his claimed history... it is probable Bennett’s proposed additional evidence would have ruled out any chance of success for his chosen defense strategy.”

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