See Update No. 2 at the bottom of Page 2 on a jury today finding Brian Hughes Benedict guilty of special circumstances murder of his ex-wife. Update No. 1 detailed the trial's opening statements.
ORIGINAL POST, AUG. 5, 7:08 A.M.: Opening statements are expected this morning in the murder trial of a graduate student accused of gunning down his ex-wife outside of his UC Irvine apartment.
Brian Hughes Benedict, 40, and Rebecca Benedict, who was 30 at the time of her death on Sept. 13, 2009, were embroiled in a battle over custody and child-support payments involving their then-4-year-old son. On that fateful evening, the mother went to her ex-husband's Verano Place apartment around 7 p.m. to pick up the boy.
Ryan Reynolds lookalike Benedict is accused of waiting with a hammer in hand for the mother, who is said to have run away from the apartment unit when he began swinging the tool at her. As she darted across an apartment path, Benedict allegedly chased her with a gun and eventually shot her several times, killing her.
The father is then said to have gone back to his apartment, fetched his son and strapped him into a car seat in a vehicle. But witnesses, who feared Benedict would drive away with his son, physically restrained him until police arrived.
He is charged with felony special circumstances murder for financial gain and lying in wait with a sentencing enhancement for the personal discharge of a firearm causing death. A conviction could send him to prison for life without the possibility of parole.
God help him: giving the opening statement for the prosecution this morning in Santa Ana is Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy, who seldom loses homicide cases.
UPDATE NO. 1, AUG. 7, 9:05 A.M.: Based on their opening statements, the prosecutor and defense attorney agree that UC Irvine doctoral student Brian Hughes Benedict illegally shot his ex-wife to death outside his Verano Place apartment on Sept. 13, 2009.
But while Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy tried to justify for jurors first-degree murder charges that could send 40-year-old Benedict to prison for life without parole, the defendant's lawyer Robert Mueller suggested Rebecca Benedict may have been the victim of a lesser "illegal killing" count, obviously angling for a future parole hearing for his client.
Murphy shed light on why the special circumstance allegations of killing for financial gain and lying in wait were filed in this case. Here is how City News Service's reporter in the Santa Ana courtroom Paul Anderson described that part of the veteran homicide prosecutor's opening statement:
Benedict asked his wife to bring their son over to visit, and when she returned to pick him up about 7 p.m., "the defendant took a hammer and took a swing at her head ... It took a big clump of hair out of her head," Murphy said.
She "went running for her life," with her husband in tow, shooting at her, Murphy said. He said the victim fell to the ground when she was hit by the gunfire, allowing the defendant to "walk up to her and shoot her in the face, and when she fell face-down, he shot her in the back of the head."
For premeditation, Murphy pointed to a will Benedict kept in his freezer that had him leaving his money and most of his other belongings to his sister and directed that his family take custody of his then-4-year-old son, Aiden. Benedict also disclosed he planned to kill his estranged wife and apologized "for taking their (his in-laws') daughter on that day he intended to kill himself," Murphy said.
Perhaps Benedict had a change of heart. He was carrying a bag with $20,000 inside as he tried to flee the scene of the slaying with his son in tow, only to be stopped by Flavio Enrique Andrade, who witnessed the shooting, and Jesse Barrueta, who heard the gunshots and called 9-1-1, Murphy explained. Both restrained Benedict until police arrived.
Murphy also explained the financial gain allegation. Anderson reports:
Benedict had worked in the aerospace industry for about a year and a half, making $80,000 annually, before returning to school and was earning less money, Murphy said. But he had about $130,000 in assets when he was ordered to pay child support, the prosecutor said.
His wife, who was also in graduate school, had about a year to go but had a job lined up that paid about $65,000 annually, Murphy said.
Benedict said during the child custody hearing, which was days before the shooting, that he would rather work for cash "under the table" so his assets could not be traced, Murphy alleged.
Benedict won joint custody of his son, but he was ordered to pay his wife's legal bills and $920 monthly in child support until his spouse finished school, when it would be adjusted according to her income, Murphy said.
"The defendant was very upset about this," the prosecutor said. "He thought he would have to quit school, and the judge called him a bad dad and he made several comments about wanting to kill himself."
Mueller, of the Orange County Public Defender's office, agreed Benedict was upset and growing ever-more depressed over the child-custody proceedings, which included the judge taking away his every-weekend visitation and only allowed visits with Aiden every other weekend and on Wednesdays. Mueller claims his client "interpreted the judge's ruling as he had lost Aiden."
UPDATE NO. 2, AUG. 7, 3:34 P.M.: A jury in Santa Ana this afternoon found Brian Hughes Benedict guilty of the first-degree murder of his ex-wife, Rebecca.
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The verdict sets 40-year-old Benedict up for a maximum sentence of life in state prison without the possibility of parole, something the judge may impose at a scheduled Sept. 12 sentencing hearing. It was the first murder at UCI.
"We're happy the jury was able to sort through all the legal issues and made the right call," Orange County veteran homicide prosecutor Matt Murphy said to City News Service of the panel that deliberated about a day before convicting Benedict of murder and finding true special circumstance allegations that the Naval Academy graduate committed the killing for financial gain and was lying in wait for the victim.
"The verdict was right," observed the victim's father, Alan Clarke, "but our daughter is still dead."