COVINGTON - After a week of graphic and detailed testimony, it was ultimately the prosecution the jury chose to believe in the trial of Franklin Benson who stood accused of murdering and dismembering the body of his girlfriend Leslyan Williams. After about five hours of deliberation, the jury came back with a guilty verdict late Saturday afternoon.
Benson, 48, was found guilty on charges of malice murder, removal of a body from a scene of death or dismemberment and concealing the death of another.
The verdict was announced by Assistant District Attorney Layla Zon in Newton County Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson's courtroom with representatives of both of the victim's and defendant's family present.
The judge asked the audience to "receive the verdict appropriately," and there was no outcry of emotion from either side of the courtroom aisle when the verdict was read.
He thanked the jury and apologized for the unusual Saturday session, comforting them by saying it would be at least two years before they would be summoned for jury duty again.
The defense asked that the jury be polled and each member affirmed their verdict.
In an unusual move, the prosecution requested Benson be sentenced immediately as the victim's family had traveled from Minnesota to be present for the proceedings. The defense agreed for the sentence to be handed down immediately.
Before delivering the sentence, the victim's brother spoke briefly saying that Benson had taken something precious from them and that he doesn't understand why. "I can't make any sense of it," he said.
The victim's sister, Angela Williams, stated she was glad that Benson would never be able to harm another woman.
"I've had men lie to me all my life, but he tops them all," she said, referring to the testimony the family had heard throughout the trial.
Angela Williams added that she also wanted to say she had forgiven Benson, something her bishop had counseled her to do. "I have to forgive him in order to go on," she said.
Judge Johnson gave Benson the maximum sentence of life, plus 11 years, plus 12 months.
The case against Benson involved the murder of his DeKalb County live-in girlfriend in 2007. Williams was reported missing by her family from Michigan in late October, spurring a DeKalb County Police investigation into her disappearance. On Oct. 30, a severed foot belonging to a female was discovered by a Newton County resident living off Ga. Highway 212 after she witnessed her dogs fighting over the remains.
Investigators with the Newton County Sheriff's Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation eventually found the victim's other severed foot, legs, arms and hands near an adjacent house. Testimony was introduced that Benson had invested money in that house and was trying to help sell it to make a profit on his investment.
Benson's defense centered around a bizarre tale of drug dealing escapades by Williams and a mysterious co-conspirator who has never been located. Benson said he went to great lengths to distance himself from the drug business, but after being confronted with a video tape of him taking the victim's car to a motel parking lot in Chattanooga, Tenn., hours after Williams is believed to have been murdered, said he made the trip on her instructions.
Prosecutors say no evidence was uncovered that Williams was actually involved in drugs, but rather there was ample evidence that the alleged drug dealing was something Benson had created after the murder to draw suspicion away from himself. The state maintained a dispute over money was at the heart of the problems between Williams and Benson.
In closing arguments defense attorney Leah Madden talked about the week's testimony and gave reasons why she believed those testifying gave evidence that could give jurors reasonable doubt as to the guilt of her client.
She reminded the jury that no evidence had been presented by the prosecution as to how she died, where the crime scene was located or what instrument was used in the murder of Leslyan Williams.
Madden repeatedly accused investigators of not being thorough and said it was Benson himself who told them he knew someone who was missing from DeKalb County. And even after he knew investigators suspected him of the murder, continued to cooperate.
"Why would he do that if he wasn't innocent?" she asked.
As to the inconsistencies in Benson's statements to investigators and those made in court, Madden said "He lied about a lot of stuff. We can't deny that," and later she summed up her arguments by stating, "A lie does not a murder make."
Prosecutor Layla Zon later pointed out to the jury that Benson himself had admitted on the stand Friday that he was not forthcoming with the investigators because he was fearful authorities would suspect him of being involved in the sale of narcotics. Zon said he told the court concerning the police investigation into his girlfriend's disappearance and later her death, "I was trying to give them hints to help."
She said Benson's statement concerning an incident DeKalb Police investigated concerning an argument between him and Williams just before her disappearance was very telling. Williams had taken Benson's keys from him when he wanted to leave until he made arrangements to repay money he had borrowed from her. Benson called the police over the dispute, but responding officers saw no evidence of physical abuse and did not force Williams to return the keys to Benson. When questioned about the incident on the stand, Benson said, "Nobody's going to tell a man he's not going anywhere."
"That tells you where he stands on women," Zon said.
Zon referred to witness testimony that alluded to Benson's womanizing as a "woman ponzi scheme," saying that Benson used women simultaneously by living off them and getting money from them, calling him a "user."
She said when he was told that the remains found in Newton County had been positively identified as belonging to Williams, his only comment was, "OK."
She reminded the jury they were to look at the evidence as a whole and not piece by piece and listed reasons why she believed Benson should be found guilty of Williams' murder. Some of the points were: the remains found on his property - "That was not a coincidence," she said; Benson lied to investigators and did not report Williams missing; Williams was pressing him to repay the money he owed her and was not going to give him any more; the allegations of drug involvement that could not be proven; and a surveillance video tape showing him taking the victim's car to a motel parking lot in Chattanooga and leaving it there.
Zon pointed to statements Benson made early in the investigation in which he referred to the victim in the past tense and that he told detectives, "She was very beneficial to me."
Barbara Knowles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.