Justices Reject Convictions Against Man Who Allegedly Shot At Cops

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A dog of a case?
The Orange County District Attorney's Office twice has won convictions against Ernest Benefiel related to highly questionable allegations he assaulted police officers in a bizarre 2004 Fullerton incident, and now a state appeals court for the second time has rejected the prosecutions as miscarriages of justice.

You may recall my May 2007 article that detailed Benefiel's woes. On Dec. 30, 2004, the 40-year-old unemployed and disabled construction foreman was upset that his teenage daughter told him to get out of her life and his marriage was falling apart. He arrived home, nailed his bedroom door shut, wrote a suicide note, swallowed handfuls of sleeping pills, sat in a recliner, listened to endless, loud loops of the blues song "Blue Drops of Rain" and hoped he'd never awake from his stupor. In case the pills didn't kill him, Benefiel had a Plan B. He placed a loaded Smith & Wesson .357 revolver in his lap.

At some point, Benefiel's 86-year-old father figured out his son was in trouble, called paramedics and told them about the handgun. A swarm of cops arrived and, in the opinion of some police experts, overreacted by rapidly firing 12 potential lethal rounds into the room from an outside window. Benefiel awoke when a blast hit him in his chest. He opened his eyes, saw blood and panicked. Thinking someone was trying to kill him, he fired two shots. He also banged his fists on the wall and said, "Dad, get out of here! There is somebody shooting at me!"

In the eyes of police and prosecutors, Benefiel had become the worst type of criminal: a potential cop killer. An Orange County jury convicted him of four felony counts of knowingly assaulting police officers and a judge sentenced him to a term of 27 years and four months in prison. But the appellate justices reviewed the case, decided Superior Court Judge Gregg L. Prickett had biased the trial for the government and overturned the convictions.

Benefiel wasn't released from prison, though. The DA's office re-filed criminal charges, a 2007 jury didn't buy that Benefiel had tried to assault the cops but found him guilty of lesser charges and another judge--Superior Court Judge Lance Jensen--sentenced him to serve 17 years in prison.

However, this week, a three-justice appeals court panel erased the convictions a second time after citing sloppy police tactics during the incident and an overzealous Judge Jensen, who gave Benefiel the maximum possible punishment. The evidence showed that the defendant didn't know that it was cops who fired shots into his bedroom and thus had reasonably acted in self-defense, wrote Justice Raymond J. Ikola on behalf of justices Kathleen O'Leary and Richard M. Aronson.

Perhaps the best news for Benefiel was this: the trio of justices also formally blocked the DA's office from re-filing the case for a third time.

Doug Lobato, the public defender who represented Benefiel at the second trial, called the ruling "appropriate because my client never intended to assault anyone, especially the police."

But the case might not be over. Kevin J. Haskins, an assistant district attorney, told me yesterday that he's read the appellate opinion and the DA's office is in consultation with the California Attorney General's office. They have a month to decide whether to appeal their loss to the state supreme court. If they don't, Benefiel finally will be released from his cell inside Wasco State Prison.

--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly
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