Trust dissolved between murder suspect Jorge Benvenuto and his team of court-appointed lawyers, leading him to withdraw his guilty plea last week and ask for a new attorney, according to Robert Booker, who agreed to take the case.
Third District Judge Ann M. Stirba Friday approved Benvenuto's request to hire Booker and dismiss his team of public defenders after carefully quizzing Benvenuto, 20.Benvenuto is charged with capital murder in the Aug. 28, 1996, shooting death of Zachary Snarr, 18, and attempted murder charges in the wounding of Yvette Rodier Evans, who was with Snarr.
Benvenuto pleaded guilty in October in a plea bargain that dropped the death penalty but promised he would spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But saying he was coerced into agreeing to the plea, Benvenuto asked to back out of the agreement and withdraw his plea at his sentencing hearing Nov. 12.
Booker said Benvenuto's mother, Nelida Valdez, approached him, saying she wasn't comfortable with the choice her son made and how he reached the decision.
In a letter to the judge, Valdez said her son was "coerced, menaced, scared and denied any hope to be treated as a human being, but George never was a criminal."
"He's very concerned about having someone who will genuinely and sincerely represent his best interests in the case," said Booker, adding the relationship between Benvenuto and his former defense team "broke down."
Stirba set a Dec. 12 hearing to determine if she will grant Benvenuto's motion to withdraw his guilty plea.
Booker said he doesn't know whether Benvenuto would eventually go to trial or agree to another plea bargain if the current plea withdrawal is granted.
"The outcome could be worse," Booker said. "This is a capital crime. He still faces the death penalty. But the decisions he makes in the future will be the best ones for him."
"Jorge Benvenuto told me he wants the truth to come out. As of today, I honestly don't know what happened that night," Booker said.
According to Rodier's testimony at the preliminary hearing, she and Snarr drove up to Little Dell Reservoir to photograph the moonrise. Benvenuto approached them, asked about a trail, she testified, then opened fire on them with a handgun.
Snarr, hit three times, died instantly. Rodier was shot three times, including once in the head, after she said Benvenuto stopped to reload his gun. Benvenuto took Snarr's car keys out of his pocket and drove off in Snarr's car, Rodier testified.
She crawled some 75 yards to a road and flagged down a car for help. Benvenuto, traced through the car he left at the scene and tracked by the telephone calls he began making to a friend after the murder, was arrested three days later.
Booker pointed out that Benvenuto was never put in a lineup for Rodier to identify.
"The victim pointed him out at the preliminary hearing. She pointed out the only person in the room wearing jail clothes."