CROSSVILLE, Tenn. - The man charged with allegedly killing four young people during a botched marijuana deal on Renegade Mountain has lost the first round in his bid to stay off death row if convicted.
A Cumberland County judge Wednesday denied a defense motion that he accept a blurted admission of guilt Jacob Allen Bennett made in his initial court appearance in September.
His lawyers argued that Bennett's attempted plea, if accepted, would have limited his range of punishment to life in prison and prevented the state from going after the death penalty.
"That plea of guilty might have been the smartest thing he (Bennett) could do," said his attorney, Robert Marlow.
Criminal Court Judge David Patterson, however, ruled on Wednesday that Bennett's proclamation of his guilt on Sept. 20, 2013, occurred before he was given the opportunity to represent himself; that the 26-year-old Crab Orchard, Tenn., man wasn't properly arraigned at that time; and that as judge, Patterson didn't accept the plea.
Also, the judge added, "The court is concerned that the defendant didn't understand what was going on."
During a reconvened arraignment on Oct. 3, the state filed its intent to seek the death penalty, lawyer Marlow was appointed to represent Bennett, and "not guilty" pleas to murder charges were entered on Bennett's behalf.
Bennett is accused of shooting three teenagers and a young mother to death on a secluded gravel road on Renegade Mountain, a resort community near Crab Orchard that has fallen on hard times.
Prosecutors said the shooting occurred during a drug deal involving a quarter-pound of marijuana, which was found inside the small car the four victims were inside. The slayings occurred late Sept. 11 or early Sept. 12, authorities said.
Killed were Danielle Rikki Jacobsen, 22; her nephew, Domonic Davis, 17; 16-year-old John Lajeunesse; and Steven Presley, 17, all of Cumberland County.
"I think he (Bennett) ought to be put before a firing squad and done just like they done our kids," Peggy Davis, grandmother of Steven Presley, said during a recess in the hearing. She said that when she heard of her grandson's murder, "It just ripped my heart out."
"When he took my baby's life, he took mine," Davis' husband, Elbert Davis, said of his grandson's shooting. "I think he (Bennett) deserves what he gave."
The defense subpoenaed two public defenders in the region that had earlier represented Bennett in theft and forgery cases in an effort to bolster their contention that Bennett was familiar with the legal system and knew what he was doing when he admitted guilt in court.
"If a defendant wants to plead guilty and he knows his rights and knows what he's giving up, he has the right to plea," said Cynthia Lyons, assistant public defender in the 13th Judicial District, which includes Cumberland County.
Fentress County Public Defender Mark Blakley, who represented Bennett on theft and other charges in 2010, testified that he believed Bennett understood his constitutional rights when it came to entering guilty pleas to those charges.
"It doesn't matter how the accused is aware of his rights as long as he knows them," Marlow told the judge. "I don't believe a court has a right to continue an arraignment, thereby allowing the state to seek enhanced punishment."
Also accused in the case is Bennett's girlfriend, Brittany Lina Yvonn Moser, 25, of Dayton, Tenn. Bennett is accused of four counts of premeditated murder, four counts of felony murder, and two counts of attempted aggravated robbery.
Moser, who was with Bennett at the time of the killings, is accused of four counts of felony murder and two counts of attempted aggravated robbery.
Deputy District Attorney General Gary McKenzie said the state likely will move to have separate trials for Bennett and Moser.
The judge set an Aug. 13 hearing on other motions in the case and to schedule a trial date for Bennett, now in maximum security in the Morgan County Regional Correctional Facility.
"If we can, we'll try to do (a trial) this year," Patterson said.
Contact Bob Fowler at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-481-3625.