Christine Hougan wasn’t interested in hearing apologies from Eric Wayne Bennett, the man who raped and fatally bludgeoned her mother, as he was sentenced to death Thursday.
As Bennett hung his head, an embittered Hougan attacked him in court for having “the audacity to say he’s sorry.” She vowed that she would not rest until Bennett is executed.
“I will be there for every court date,” said Hougan, Marie Evans Powell’s only child. “As long as it takes, I will be there. If it takes every penny I have, every ounce of strength, I will be there. When you are executed, I will be there.”
Bennett, 25, softly apologized to Powell’s family and to his own relatives during a dramatic and tense two-hour sentencing in Orange County Superior Court.
“I know saying I’m sorry doesn’t take away what I’ve done,” Bennett said. “I do hope it takes away some of the pain and some of the hate.”
A jury recommended in September that Bennett be put to death. During an emotionally charged trial, the same jury had convicted him of killing Powell and raping one of his neighbors at knifepoint just days after he moved into a Costa Mesa home with his wife and two sons.
The surviving rape victim, who was in court on Thursday, paid tribute to Powell, calling her “a courageous woman who I never knew.”
As the hushed courtroom sat rapt, the woman told of how the rape had shattered her life and contributed to the end of her career as an attorney.
“I thought my life was so wonderful,” she said. “I was never more happy, never more confident. Then Eric Bennett came bolting through my door and nothing has been the same.”
On the day of that attack in September 1994, Bennett, a handyman, also had gone to the Laguna Hills condominium of Powell, a 50-year-old secretary, and installed vinyl flooring. About two weeks later, he returned as Powell lay in her bed watching television and robbed, raped and bludgeoned her.
Prosecutors said Bennett struck Powell on the head with a glass decanter, tried to suffocate her with a wet towel and dropped a television set on her head.
Bennett, who had no previous criminal record, was addicted to alcohol and methamphetamine at the time, his attorneys said during the penalty phase of the trial. They blamed his addictions on a troubled childhood marked by abuse and learning difficulty.
The victim’s 30-year-old daughter said it sickened her to sit through every day of the trial and hear the most “horrific details that anyone can ever imagine hearing about someone they love.”
“Every night when I go to sleep, I see what happened to my mom,” Hougan said. “My brain has put together all the bits and pieces. It haunts me when I’m asleep and when I’m awake. I think about it all the time. It feels like it’s happening to me.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Caroline Kirkwood said after the sentencing that the case had been a particularly emotional one and extremely hard on Powell’s family.
“I hope it will bring them some closure,” Kirkwood said. “It will never make them whole, but I hope it does bring them some closure.”
Joining the daughter in court was her husband, 28-year-old John Hougan, who discovered Powell’s body. Also there were Powell’s mother, brother, former husband, other relatives and several friends.
Bennett’s wife, parents and sisters also were in courtroom. His wife cried when the surviving rape victim spoke and again during parts of Hougan’s remarks.
One of Bennett’s attorneys, Deputy Public Defender Leonard Gumlia, said to the judge before the sentencing that the death penalty “should be used as a last resort. . . . Mr. Bennett is not the worst of the worst.”
Gumlia said later that his client was already resigned to his fate.
“Mr. Bennett has been at peace with this for a long time,” the attorney said. “He’s expected it. He only cared to live for the benefit of his family, because his family wanted him to live. He felt he should pay for his crimes.”
The sentencing had been delayed several times as Judge Kathleen E. O’Leary held hearings to clear up allegations of juror misconduct.
A male juror had lied to fellow panelists about once being in jail, but O’Leary ruled last week that his comments did not appear to have affected the jury’s decision to recommend the death penalty for Bennett.