In 2006, Hassan Bennett, of Philadelphia, received a life sentence at age 23 for a crime he didn't commit. After serving more than a decade in prison — and after doing away with an ineffective defense attorney and representing himself in his own retrial — Bennett, now 36 years old, has been freed.
Prosecutors 13 years ago claimed Bennett plotted to kill 19-year-old Devon English after losing $20 to him in a dice game. They also accused him of being a co-conspirator in the nonfatal shooting of Corey Ford, then 18.
While Bennett had proof he was somewhere else during the time of English's murder and Ford’s wounding, Ford, as well as Bennett’s friend, Lamont Dade — who is currently serving time for shooting the fatal shot that killed English — identified Bennett to homicide detectives as a co-conspirator.
"I didn't understand why he would finger me for the incident," says Bennett of Dade. "I was hurt. I felt betrayed. I don't know. I felt crushed, 'cause I had a love for this guy."
Both Dade and Ford eventually recanted their statements against Bennett, saying the detective who conducted the interview, James Pitts, coerced them. Pitts is on desk duty now, and he has since been accused of forcing testimony in a number of other cases.
"It's like being pushed off a cruise, and you're drowning. You're in a total panic."Hassan Bennett on being wrongfully convicted of a crime
Adding to the faultiness of Bennett's case, when it came time for trial, his lawyer didn't use key evidence supporting his innocence: phone records that indicated Bennett wasn't at the scene of the crime when it was committed.
"My lawyer didn't submit anything," Bennett tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "After trial, I just looked at his transcripts, the notes of testimony, and realized his whole game plan was, 'The witnesses had lied once. They lied twice. You can't believe them.'
"And he had the phone records. The phone records were found in his file."
Bennett isn't the only victim of a flawed justice system.
His case is one of nearly 2,500 wrongful convictions since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Murder is the most common type of exonerated crime, according to the registry, and black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of it than white people.
"I often tell people it's like drowning," Bennett says of being wrongfully convicted of a crime. "It's like being pushed off a cruise, and you're drowning. You're in a total panic."
Bennett took charge of his case in 2013 when he saw his defense attorney sitting on his case, he says. Despite pushback from those close to him, he withdrew his counsel and appealed his case.
"Right then, I was like, 'I have to represent myself. No one's going to fight for me like I'm going to fight for myself. No one is going to talk for me like I'm going to talk for myself. No one's gonna study this case as hard as I am for myself,' " he says.
Last September, Bennett represented himself for the first time in his retrial. Out of the 12 jurors, only one found him guilty, resulting in a hung jury, which called for a third retrial. Bennett felt defeated, until he saw the comments the jury had for his own representation, some of which appeared positive.
"I thought it was like I was being praised," says Bennett. "And I was like, 'OK, I am headed somewhere.' "
In prison, Bennett began to learn the law to prepare for his fourth trial. He read law- and argument-related books all day, watched crime shows — like "How to Get Away with Murder," "Vindicated" and "Death Row Stories" — and practiced his debating skills with anyone in sight, including correctional officers.
During his trial, he was able to effectively argue his case, putting various detectives, including Pitts, on the stand to catch them making contradictory statements.
"I didn't belong in that case, but since I had a smart mouth, I talked back to the cops, I challenged them when I felt they did something wrong, they fingered me for that case."Hassan Bennett
"The witnesses blamed Detective Pitts, and the detective tried to exclude Detective Pitts to say the witnesses were lying," Bennett says. "So, when I called Detective Pitts on the stand, one of my main angles was to show he had contact with the witnesses, and he [admitted] to having contact with those witnesses, despite what the detective said.
"So, they crossed each other — they banged each other in the head."
Bennett also wore his prison uniform to his retrial to make the point that just because his demeanor fit a certain stereotype, that didn’t mean he was guilty. He even brought up a song from "Sesame Street" to prove that message: "One of these things is not like the other."
"I didn't belong in that case, but since I had a smart mouth, I talked back to the cops, I challenged them when I felt they did something wrong, they fingered me for that case," he says. "Because I wouldn't help them in other investigations, they fingered me for their case."
This segment aired on May 20, 2019.
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