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Charlotte Sun: An opportunity to improve’ – Vehicular homicide victim’s family pushes for Amendment 6

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

By Anne Easker

Linda Beni didn’t find out about the crash that took her daughter’s life until eight hours later. She drove by the single-vehicle wreck on the way to the gym on Dec. 5, 2016, and said a prayer that everything would be OK, not knowing her daughter was involved.

Later that day, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper met her at the AT&T store in Port Charlotte to let her know her daughter, 21-year-old Brittany Beni, had been killed in a DUI crash just after 2 a.m.

“It was just a nightmare from then on, and almost 22 months later, it’s still a nightmare,” Beni said last week. “Every day we’re reminded. We drive past the scene, and once a month, we go to court.”

Investigators originally believed Beni and 24-year-old Wesley Chery were the only two occupants of the vehicle. Months later, evidence revealed a third person, Michel Brutus, was the driver who allegedly fled the scene. Brutus is now in custody at the Charlotte County Jail awaiting trial.

Linda Beni and her family are now advocating for Amendment 6, also known as the Victim’s Rights amendment or Marsy’s Law, which will be on the ballot in the November election.

The text of the amendment states its intention is “to preserve and protect the right of crime victims to achieve justice, ensure a meaningful role throughout the criminal and juvenile justice systems for crime victims, and ensure that crime victims’ rights and interests are respected and protected by law in a manner no less vigorous than protections afforded to criminal defendants and juvenile delinquents.”

Specific rights are spelled out, including due process, freedom from intimidation and harassment, the right to have victims’ safety and welfare considered when setting bail, and the right to be notified of and heard at all court proceedings.

One portion of the amendment states that a state attorney “may file a good faith demand for a speedy trial” which would require the court to hold a calendar call within 15 days and to schedule a trial no more than 60 days after the demand.

Beni believes if Marsy’s Law were in place, it never would have taken eight hours for her to be notified of her daughter’s death, and the court proceedings may be moving faster with better communication. Last year, she said, Brutus was offered a plea deal of 11 years in prison, and prosecutors never consulted with her until after the fact.

“It is supposed to be offered to the victims first, and we get to decide whether we want to go to trial,” she said. “They took it into their own hands and said we didn’t want you have to go through a trial. […] It’s not their prerogative to tell us we don’t want to go to trial.”

Judge Donald Mason denied the plea, and the Benis are hoping for a trial date to be set by the end of the year. Still, it’s a struggle each month to find out what’s going on, Beni said. Although the State Attorney’s Office has victim advocates, she said they rarely call, and the family is frequently left in the dark.

“It’s awful for our family,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll ever get closure. I don’t like to use that word, but I feel like we’ll never have any peace. I feel like she can’t rest in peace until we know what’s going on.”

The Florida Sheriff’s Association, including the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, also supports the amendment.

“As the Charlotte County Sheriff, I have spent countless hours following an arrest explaining the constitutional rights afforded to someone accused of a crime,” Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell said in an emailed statement. “I wish I could say I have spent a similar amount of time talking with crime victims about their own rights, but unfortunately victims lack any clear, enforceable constitutional protections. Imagine telling a mother the law considers the rights of her son’s murderer more important than her own, or that a rapist has stronger legal protections than the person he or she assaulted.”

However, not everyone in the legal community agrees.

Defense Attorney Russell Kirshy said most of the protections provided by the proposed amendment are already in the Florida statutes or the constitution.

“As things stand right now, victims have the right to be heard at every critical stage of the proceedings,” he said. “They have the right to have their opinions voiced and considered by the court and the state. […] The problem is that this raises those obligations and then puts them in a constitutional amendment.”

Kirshy said while people might say victims’ rights are being taken away by the crime committed against them, their rights are not being threatened by the state the same way a defendant’s are, which is why due process is so important.

“The state isn’t going to take away their freedom,” he said. “The state isn’t going to take away their life. […] The bottom line is, there is a dramatic difference between being a victim and wanting to be heard, versus giving rights to a victim at the same level as a defendant.”

In particular, Kirshy said the idea of a victim demanding a speedy trial is dangerous, mentioning one case he took on where the discovery was around 1,800 pages long.

“The state has the option of doing all their work before, and putting an awful lot of resources into that work, before they ever arrest the defendant,” he said. “Think about how behind the eight ball I would be if they could arrest a client and demand a speedy trial. It took me three years to get ready for that trial.”

Scott Weinberg, another local defense attorney, agreed.

“The criminal justice system is so skewed against the defendant,” he said. “The more rights you give to victims, the more people will make up allegations.”

Kirshy said while he feels for victims, the lack of communication and the lengthy court process won’t be fixed by an amendment. Cuts to court budgets year after year have meant judges and attorneys taking on more and more cases, slowing down the process for everyone.

“The system is grossly underfunded,” he said. “That’s the real story.”

The amendment is also bundled with a change that would increase judges’ mandatory retirement age from 70 to 75.

Brittany’s brother, Scott Beni, said whether the amendment passes or not, he’s grateful for the attention it’s bringing to the issue.

“Whether the amendment goes through or not, this has shed light that there’s an opportunity to improve what is currently happening with communication, advocacy for the victims,” Scott Beni said. “Regardless, I think they can see we have some work to do.”

Read More:—vehicular-homicide-victim-s/article_c4bbc44e-c1ac-11e8-9888-cb9575aa54a8.html

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