Death penalty still on table for accused murderer of elderly woman

Published 8:53 am Friday, September 13, 2019

Chad Anthony Benfield lost in court Thursday when his attorneys challenged the constitutionality of the death penalty before Carter County Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice.

Benfield is charged with two counts of felony murder after a grand jury indicted him of the offenses back in January. The state subsequently filed intent to seek the death penalty with the court, which precipitated a motion by Benfield’s attorneys to lodge a motion to declare the Tennessee Death Penalty unconstitutional on August 2.

Long time defense attorney Jim Bowman, who filed the motion, argued before the court. The essential theory expounded on by Bowman was that per the Tennessee constitution the state derives its power from the people, and since that power does not include the right to kill (except in limited cases of self-defense) as punishment, the people cannot thereby delegate that power to the state.

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Citing Article 1 of the Tennessee constitution, Bowman argued, “…The government possesses no power that the people themselves do not possess.”

“The Tennessee death penalty statute purports to exercise a power that we individuals do not have. We individually can’t kill to punish someone. We can’t kill for vengeance. We can’t kill because we are angry with them. We can’t kill because that person has violated us in some way,” Bowman said.

Bowman said that before the adoption of the United States, monarchs could have someone put to death simply because the condemned was an inconvenience.

They had the power but not the right, said Bowman, summarizing his argument that because the state could not show that it had the right even if the U.S. Supreme Court said they had the power to execute for punishment because in Tennessee the people are not able to do so.

“The people cannot delegate a power they do not have,” he said.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Roark countered Bowman’s position generally at first with the seemingly mountainous case law that states that the death penalty does not violate the cruel and unusual punishments proscriptions under both the U.S. and the state constitutions.

“We do have a bifurcated system for this. This isn’t King Henry VIII or any survey of ninth grade history books that we could go through here. We have guidelines for when the state can even request the death penalty. This isn’t some monarch deciding that someone needs to die…this is a very careful process and a lot of consideration goes into it,” Roark said.

Judge Rice after hearing the arguments denied the motion. In her ruling, Rice said that the “ramifications of the death penalty have litigated up and down the state and federal courts ever since 1976 when the United States Supreme permitted states to enact death penalty statutes under certain…guidelines…Tennessee being one of those states. There are 32 now that utilize the death penalty for certain homicides, all of course first-degree.” Rice talked about the aggravating factors that must be present before the state can seek capital punishment, and that those factors had been reviewed on both the state and federal appellate levels and upheld.

While Rice ruled against the defense, she did grant its motion to prevent the state from using Benfield’s previous convictions of four counts of first-degree burglary purportedly committed in 1999 in North Carolina as means to impeach him should he take the stand in his own defense during trial.