Grand Jury indicts Benfield in murder of Mary Nolen

Published 6:09 pm Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Carter County Grand Jury indicted Chad Benfield on charges of first-degree murder in connection with the death of an 89-year-old Stoney Creek woman in July.

Deputies of the Carter County Sheriff’s Office served the indictment on Benfield, 44, of Elizabethton, at the Carter County Detention Center on Tuesday. Benfield has been held in the jail since his arrest on August 10 on a charge of being a fugitive from justice out of the state of South Carolina where he was wanted on a warrant charging him with violation of probation.

The indictment charges Benfield with two counts of first-degree murder. One count alleges he killed Mary Nolen “in the perpetration of or attempt to perpetrate rape.” The second count alleges Benfield killed Nolen during the “perpetration of or attempt to perpetrate aggravated burglary.”

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Under state law, an individual may be charged with first-degree murder, if someone dies during the perpetration of a felony crime, such as rape or aggravated burglary. This type of murder charge is also called “felony murder” and under state law is one of the offenses that qualify for the death penalty. District Attorney General Tony Clark has not announced whether or not he will seek the death penalty against Benfield, but following Benfield’s arrest in connection with Nolen’s murder Clark said it is something he and his staff would be considering.

The charges against Benfield stem from an investigation by the Carter County Sheriff’s Office into Nolen’s assault and subsequent death which began on July 14 when her granddaughter Melanie Harold found Nolen injured in her home. Nolen later died at the hospital as a result of injuries she suffered in the assault.

A preliminary hearing was held in the case in November with six witnesses testifying for the state, including Harold.

Harold testified for the court about finding her grandmother in her home that morning.

After breaking into the home to check on her grandmother, Harold said she found her in her bedroom laying across her bed wearing a mint green nightgown that had been folded up over her legs. Harold said she could see her grandmother did not have any underwear on and the sheets, blankets, and pillowcases were missing from the bed.

“I screamed,” Harold said, adding she then “leaped” to the bed to check her grandmother. “She had no color to her eyes. All you could see was the pupils. I didn’t want to touch her because I knew she was hurt.”

Harold said she saw blood around her grandmother’s mouth and that her grandmother couldn’t move either of her legs and could only move one arm.

As she sat on the bed, Harold said she heard her grandmother trying to say “Help me. Help me.”

Afraid that her grandmother was dying, Harold said she screamed for someone to call 911 and went to get her mother and bring her inside.

After Nolen was taken to the hospital, Harold said her father asked her questions about what happened. Harold said her grandmother was only able to shake or nod her head and say “uh-uh” for no and “uh-huh” for yes.

Nolen told her family she did not know who had hurt her but indicated it was just one person.

“He asked her ‘Did he rape you’ and she nodded and said uh-huh,” Harold said.

Nolen’s health continued to deteriorate following the incident, and she died on July 26 at the hospital, having never regained the ability to communicate details of what had happened to her. According to the autopsy report, Nolen died as a result of complications of blunt-force trauma to her head and neck.

At the hospital, a forensic nurse conducted a rape exam on Nolen and collected fingernail clippings and scrapings from under her fingernails to be sent for DNA testing.

During her testimony, Carter County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Penny Garland testified it was the fingernail clippings and swabs of the fingers that led investigators to Benfield.

When the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation tested DNA samples collected from the clippings and swabs they ran the DNA profile through the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and got a “hit,” Garland said. The test matched the sample collected from Nolen’s nails to a DNA profile in the system belonging to Benfield.