Steven Wayne Benson, self-described family man, was found guilty here Thursday of murdering his mother and adopted brother in ruthless pursuit of a $10-million family fortune.
Today the same jury will consider whether the quiet businessman who set off two pipe bombs that engulfed his family in an orange fireball should be sentenced to the electric chair or life in prison with a minimum of 25 years before parole. Circuit Judge Hugh D. Hayes can accept or alter the proposed sentence.
Benson, 35, tried to make eye contact with the jury--whose members’ average age is 60--as they re-entered the courtroom after deliberating 11 hours during two days.
None of them glanced back. Several bowed their heads. A few shuddered with emotion.
The court clerk read the verdict. “The defendant is guilty as charged of first-degree, premeditated murder,” she said.
Benson, a husky and clean-cut man in a conservative gray suit, sat stone-faced, his lips pressed tightly together. Defense attorney Michael McDonnell squeezed him on the left shoulder.
Eight more verdicts followed: guilty on all counts of murder, attempted murder and arson.
Co-defense counsel Jerry Berry tried to comfort his client. “Steven this is only the first battle,” he said.
Stares Straight Ahead
Benson nodded, then pushed at the nose piece of his thick glasses. He stared straight ahead.
The attorneys left to meet with the judge in chambers. Benson sat alone with the defense team’s investigator, Bob Laws.
“I think he was in shock, just shock,” Laws said.
Twice, Benson turned to look at the packed courtroom. Neither his wife nor his three children attended any of the month-long trial.
As the bailiff cleared the courtroom, only one person moved to console him. She was one of the many elderly ladies who had watched the riveting trial each day. Tears dampened her mascara.
‘I’m Very Sorry’
“Steven, I’m very sorry,” she said, with a stifled sob. “I know you’re innocent.”
“Thank you,” he replied and clasped her hand.
Then the bailiff shouted: “No contact! No contact!” and Benson was led away.
The crime the jury found he had committed was stunning for its malevolence: on a languid morning 13 months ago, in the quiet Gulfside city of Naples, Steven Benson hid two bombs in the family’s Chevrolet Suburban, connived to get his mother, sister and adopted brother inside, then set off an explosion that kicked smoke 200 feet into the air.
The blast killed Margaret Benson, 63, heiress to a Pennsylvania tobacco fortune, and her adopted son Scott, 21, who, investigators later learned, was the natural child of Margaret’s daughter, Carol Lynn Benson Kendall.
Carol Lynn, 40, a one-time beauty queen, survived the blast but was left badly scarred. The second bomb had been placed just beneath her seat, but the first bomb had sent her rolling from the mangled wreckage.
“I felt as if I was lying in a tunnel . . . and there was this orange thing all around me,” she said from the witness stand. “It was just there and it was horrible . . . .”
The jury asked to have that testimony reread to them as they started deliberations Wednesday.
“I remember seeing my brother Steven standing on the walk,” Carol Lynn said. “He was facing the Suburban and staring straight ahead. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t coming over to help me.”
The surviving sister will have much to say about whether Steven is sentenced to the electric chair. Prosecutor Jerry Brock said he will seek her opinion before addressing the jury in the punishment phase of the trial.
Consults With Family
“We are going to consult with as many of the Benson family as we can to get their thoughts and feelings,” he said after the verdict. “This is something we always do.”
Carol Lynn, who lives in Boston, was in nearby Naples Thursday, but neither she nor other relatives were in court. Janet Murphy, Steven’s aunt and Margaret’s only sister, also was in town. So was his grandfather, Harry Hitchcock, 89, the white-haired family patriarch who first made the fortune.
“Justice has been done,” the old man told a family attorney on news of the verdict.
Fifty-nine years ago, Hitchcock started the Lancaster Leaf Tobacco Co. of Lancaster, Pa., and it has since become a giant in cigar-tobacco trading.
Steven Benson once worked in the business, then decided he could make it on his own. He failed at several ventures, often losing his mother’s money along the way.
Receives Defense Aid
Finally, according to testimony, he began embezzling from her. She found him out and planned to disinherit him. It was then, the prosecution said, that he schemed to get it all.
Ironically, because of a compromise probate agreement, Steven has been given more than $200,000 from his mother’s estate to pay for his defense.
McDonnell, Steven Benson’s attorney, predicted that appeals would eventually set Benson free. “We have to review the record,” he said. “There are many points that we feel could result in a new trial . . . . As a matter of law, the evidence was insufficient.”
Jurors Stay Sequestered
The jurors will remain sequestered until after sentencing, so it is too soon to know what parts of the evidence were decisive in their decision.
But, even with a verdict in hand, the family squabbling promises to go on and on.
“Tragedy after tragedy,” Harry Hitchcock said of it.
There remains the $10 million--and a stack of lawsuits among the remaining Bensons and the estates of the dead seeking control of it.