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Benvenuto agrees to an open review

Attorneys have wide latitude to look into Jorge Benvenuto's mental state when he pleaded guilty in October to killing Zach Snarr and wounding Yvette Rodier in August 1996.

Facing the death penalty, Benvenuto, 20, pleaded guilty Oct. 15 to murder, a capital offense, opting for life in prison without parole in a plea agreement.But at his sentencing a month later Benvenuto asked to withdraw his guilty plea, saying his public defenders had coerced him into accepting the plea bargain.

Defense attorney Robert Booker told 3rd District Judge Anne Stirba in a hearing Wednesday that Benvenuto suffers from depression and his mental competence at his October hearing should be examined.

But to do that, statements Benvenuto made to his former attorneys, mental evaluators, jail personnel and others have to be reviewed. Benvenuto agreed Wednesday to waive his attorney-client privilege with his fired public defenders, allowing them to discuss the case with both Booker and prosecutors.

Booker said Benvenuto's public defenders knew he suffered from depression and should have told the judge during the plea bargain proceedings. Booker also said he looked into and has dropped the allegation that Benvenuto was coerced into agreeing to the plea bargain.

A psychological evaluation done on Benvenuto on Dec. 25 by Dr. Nancy B. Cohn determined he suffers from mild to moderate depression but is mentally competent and probably was competent when he agreed to the plea bargain.

"At the time he entered his plea, he was undoubtedly confused and distressed but not in a way that would impair his reality testing, or his ability to understand the implications of his entering a plea," Cohn concluded.

Cohn said Benvenuto "has a long history of personal and interpersonal problems . . . and he is currently mildly to moderately depressed. However, there is no strong evidence that he has suffered from delusions, hallucinations or other psychotic symptoms, from a thought disorder or from impaired intellectual functioning."

Stirba has scheduled a Jan. 16 hearing to determine if Benvenuto will be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.

Benvenuto is charged with murdering Snarr on Aug. 28, 1996, and wounding Rodier. The two victims drove up to Little Dell Reservoir that night to photograph the moon rising over the water.

Benvenuto approached them on the shoreline and asked them a question, Rodier testified at a preliminary hearing, then pulled out a handgun and began shooting them.

Snarr was hit three times and died at the scene. Rodier, wounded in the leg and head, played dead while Benvenuto rifled through Snarr's pockets and took his car keys, she testified at the hearing, identifying Benvenuto as their attacker.