published Thursday, February 9th, 2012

James Benson may face death penalty in Hutcheson hospital shootings

People exit Erlanger at Hutcheson in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., in this file photo.
People exit Erlanger at Hutcheson in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., in this file photo.
Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Poll
Should prosecutors seek the death penalty for James Benson?

THE ULTIMATE PENALTY

Georgia law requires or allows the death penalty in a variety of cases.

* Aircraft hijacking or treason (automatic death penalty)

Murder, rape, armed robbery or kidnapping and when:

* Suspect has a prior capital felony conviction

* Suspect has escaped from incarceration when crime occurred

* Crime is committed in a public place, endangering others than the victim

* Crime is "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman"

Source: Georgia Code

A Chattanooga man accused of emptying his revolver into his estranged wife and mother-in-law in a hospital waiting room last month may face the death penalty, prosecutors said.

A Walker County, Ga., grand jury indicted James Benson, 59, this week on 10 charges, including two counts of malice murder and two counts of felony murder in the deaths of Mary Sue Benson, 56, and her mother, Charlotte Johnson, 77.

Authorities said Benson sprayed bullets in the two women's chests on Jan. 6 in a crowded waiting room at Erlanger at Hutcheson in Fort Oglethorpe.

Herbert "Buzz" Franklin, district attorney for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, indicated he likely would decide on seeking the death penalty before Benson's March 13 arraignment.

In a death penalty case, prosecutors must be able to prove aggravating circumstances surrounding the slaying, Franklin said. Under Georgia law, the criteria can range from creating a risk of death to the public to killing an on-duty law enforcement officer, Georgia code shows.

Benson's attorney said charges often are duplicated in murder cases, so some charges likely will be dropped or combined. While Benson is charged with four murder counts, he can be convicted only on one count in each death, according to Public Defender David Dunn.

The intensive care unit waiting room at Erlanger at Hutcheson was crowded at the time of the Jan. 5 shooting. Mary Benson was killed instantly and Johnson died on the way to Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga.

The women were visiting another of Johnson's daughters, Myra Gail McCrary, 52. She was in a coma in ICU after what officials thought was carbon monoxide poisoning. She died a week later, never knowing what had happened to her sister and mother.

Benson had been asked to leave the hospital earlier in the week after he and his estranged wife began arguing, Fort Oglethorpe Police Chief David Eubanks said.

The couple married in 2008, but friends said Mary Sue Benson recently had left her husband.

Authorities raced to the hospital after the shooting, but Benson already was gone. He drove to the Fort Oglethorpe police station and turned himself in, authorities said.

Since then, Walden Security guards have been stationed at the campus. Hospital officials say that's a temporary measure and they are looking for permanent solutions to bolster their security.

Benson remains in the Walker County Jail. His attorneys say they haven't filed paperwork for him to seek bond.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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