Benfield arraigned on murder charges in Criminal Court

Published 4:37 pm Friday, January 26, 2018

A Carter County man charged with the murder of an 89-year-old woman made his first appearance in Criminal Court on Friday morning.

Chad Benfield, 44, of Elizabethton, appeared before Judge Lisa Rice for arraignment on charges of two counts of first-degree murder.

Benfield requested a court-appointed attorney and filled out an Affidavit of Indigency. After receiving the affidavit, Rice asked Benfield some questions regarding the form before appointing the Public Defender’s Office to represent him. The Public Defender’s Office represented Benfield through the General Sessions Court proceedings against him in the case, including the preliminary hearing.

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Assistant Public Defender Wesley Taylor informed the court that on behalf of Benfield he would waive a formal reading of the indictment and enter a plea of not guilty.

Rice scheduled Benfield to return to court on March 2 for a status update and scheduling order in the case. She noted future court appearances would also be on her docket.

The charges against Benfield stem from an investigation by the Carter County Sheriff’s Office into the death of 89-year-old Mary Nolen, of Stoney Creek, in July 2017.

Benfield was initially charged with first-degree murder and especially aggravated burglary on August 11 in connection with Nolen’s death.

A preliminary hearing in the case was held on Nov. 17, 2017. Six witnesses took the stand for the prosecution during the hearing, including law enforcement officers, a forensic nurse, Benfield’s former fiancée, and one of Nolen’s granddaughters.

The granddaughter, Melanie Harold, testified about going to her grandmother’s home on July 14, 2017, and finding her severely injured and near death.

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 transported 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. Nolen died as a result of complications of blunt-force trauma to her head and neck according to the autopsy report.

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.

Following the hearing, General Sessions Court Judge Keith Bowers Jr. bound the case over to a Carter County Grand Jury. On Jan. 5, 2018, the Grand Jury returned an indictment on Benfield.

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.”

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.