How Not to Commit Suicide

Unlucky OC man wanted to die quietly but landed in prison after explosion

"In terms of sympathy, your job as jurors is not to base your verdict on sympathy," he said in his closing argument. "The fact that he got injured in 1998, the fact that his knee and his back had been injured, the fact that he didn't have a healthy relationship with his wife and daughter, the fact that he had a—and I'll use the term girlfriend—he said no, it wasn't a girlfriend, just a friend and then he acknowledged, 'well, okay, I had an intimate relationship with her.' And that apparently wasn't going well. Those are things that tell you, tug at your heart and go, feel sorry for me, things weren't going my way."

But the trial's pivotal moment occurred when Superior Court Judge Gregg L. Prickett approved Winter's plan to demonstrate the explosive sound emitted by flash-bang devices. Prickett ignored deputy public defender Joe Flohr's strenuous objections that a courthouse demonstration couldn't duplicate conditions at Benefiel's apartment.

Outside, in a paved, concrete-walled area where sheriff's deputies park at Orange County's central courthouse, the prosecution fired the flash-bang device. The space was essentially an echo chamber for the boom. The prosecutor was pleased by the result.

Afterward, the jury quickly convicted Benefiel of four felony counts of assaulting police officers. Never mind that one male juror fell asleep during the proceedings, Prickett sentenced Benefiel to 27 years and four months in state prison. He's there today with 6,000 other inmates.

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Ernie Benefiel's luck finally might be changing. Last month, the Santa Ana-based state Court of Appeal tossed out his conviction and ordered a new trial. Prickett hadn't been a fair judge, justices Raymond J. Ikola, Kathleen O'Leary and Richard M. Aronson concluded.

"Because the court record reveals that the primary purpose of the [flash-bang demonstration] was to test the truthfulness of Benefiel's testimony he slept through the [explosion], the demonstration had to be conducted under conditions substantially similar to those surrounding Benefiel on the night in question," they wrote. Instead, the justices said Prickett permitted a demonstration under "entirely dissimilar" conditions.

After the introduction of the tainted evidence, "Benefiel's credibility was thereafter so tarnished in the jury's eyes that they doubted his entire testimony," the court ruled. Prickett's "error was prejudicial."

Benefiel remains locked in state prison. He's been incarcerated for 30 months. At some point, he'll likely be transferred back to Orange County. The district attorney's office has not announced if it will retry the case.

But for Benefiel's sake, you have to wonder if he's been punished enough.

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