Courts & Crime

Soldier’s sentence in drug-related death gets another look

A former Tacoma, Wash.-area soldier serving time for his role in the 2009 drug-related death of his 16-year-old girlfriend will get another chance at a lighter sentence.

The nation’s highest military appeals court has already overturned the involuntary manslaughter conviction of Army Pvt. Timothy E. Bennitt. Now, in an unusual encore performance, Bennitt’s case will return to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces for a second look at his sentencing.

The result could be earlier freedom for Bennitt, who in January 2010 was effectively sentenced to 58 months in prison. It could also mean a rebuke for lower-level judges on the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, and an object lesson in the limits of legal responsibility.

“This is an important case because even though Private Bennitt pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter charge, he pleaded guilty to the drug offenses,” Zachary D. Spilman, an attorney who specializes in military issues, said Thursday. “The law guarantees every accused the right to plead not guilty...and to force the prosecution to prove its case.”

A high school dropout, Bennitt was 20 years old in January 2010 and serving as a heavy equipment operator with the 617th Engineer Company, 864th Engineer Battalion. He had spent about six months in Afghanistan before returning to what is now called Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Bennitt admitted using and dealing drugs, including oxycodone, oxymorphone and marijuana. Among the people he shared drugs with was his girlfriend Leah King, a sophomore at Lakes High School in Lakewood, Wash.

On Feb. 14, 2009, as came out at trial, Bennitt lent money to Leah so she could buy Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug. She also took oxymorphone, a potent painkiller. Later that evening, while in Bennitt’s barracks room, Leah and a friend took Xanax. Then Leah, the friend and Bennitt snorted more oxymorphone. The three fell asleep.

When Bennitt awoke, Leah could not be roused. She was pronounced dead at the scene, and the cause of death was later determined to be the combination of drugs.

Courts can struggle with identifying a cause-and-effect relationship between drug dealing and a customer’s fate. In January, following the death of an addict in Iowa, the Supreme Court ruled that enhanced sentencing only applies to the dealer who supplied the specific drug responsible for death. Simply contributing to death can’t trigger a stiffer federal sentence.

Bennitt’s trial judge, Army Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks, acquitted the Indiana native on a charge of manslaughter by culpable negligence, but found him guilty of manslaughter through aiding and abetting Leah’s drug use. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces reversed that conviction.

“A conviction for involuntary manslaughter cannot be sustained solely by evidence that an accused sold somebody a drug and that the purchaser later died from an overdose of that drug,” the court stated, quoting from an earlier case.

After reversing Bennitt’s involuntary manslaughter conviction _ while leaving his guilty plea to drug charges intact _ the military appeals court directed the Army Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider Bennitt’s sentence. In a brief, three-page decision last September, the Army court retained the original 58-month sentence.

The higher military appeals court will now decide whether the lower court erred in sticking with a sentence based on Bennitt’s responsibility for what happened to Leah.

“Private Bennitt was not convicted of distributing oxymorphone to (Leah),” Army Capt. Aaron A. Inkenbrandt noted in a defense petition, adding that, following dismissal of the involuntary manslaughter conviction, “the record contains no valid finding of fact that Pvt. Bennitt’s actions resulted in (Leah’s) death.”

Spilman, who manages the CAAFlog military law blog, said the lower court’s decision to retain the same sentence “gives the appearance that the court did not consider the mitigating nature of Private Bennitt’s acceptance of responsibility.”

The government opted not to submit a brief, though it asked the appeals court to skip the case. An oral argument date has not been set.