Accused of intentional child abuse & felony murder
Donna Jean Bennett was charged with child abuse and felony murder in 1995 following the death of her son, Grayson. At trial, the prosecutor argued that Donna’s roommate, John Sweet, had physically assaulted Grayson while Donna was at work, causing two skull fractures and subdural bleeding – injuries which directly resulted in Grayson’s death.
With respect to Ms. Bennett, the prosecutor argued that she had committed intentional child abuse by delaying seeking medical attention for approximately seven hours after she came home from work. Donna’s lawyer argued at trial that she had in fact attempted to seek medical care for Grayson but that she was physically prevented from doing so by John.
Donna also presented evidence of battered woman’s syndrome. With respect to the murder charge, the prosecutor argued that because Grayson died in the course of Donna’s crime of child abuse, she was also guilty of felony murder. The jury convicted Ms. Bennett on all counts and she was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and 17 years for child abuse.
Over the course of the next five years, Ms. Bennett pursued her direct appeal and post-conviction remedies without success. In 2002, she appealed to the Justice Project. Peter Eckerstrom (now a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals) focused on the issue felony murder and its relationship to the crime of child abuse. In order to be guilty of felony murder, Arizona law requires that the actions constituting the underlying felony actually cause the victim’s death.
In this case, the Justice Project believed that there was no evidence that Ms. Bennett’s alleged failure to seek medical care actually caused her child’s death: at trial, the emergency room physician testified that given the severity of Grayson’s injuries caused by John Sweet, it was merely speculation to say whether the child would have survived if Ms. Bennett had sought medical care earlier. Peter and a group of law students at the University of Arizona prepared a new post-conviction petition attacking the murder conviction.
The argument was rejected by the trial court. In 2003, Mr. Eckerstom withdrew from the case after his appointment to the Court of Appeals. Adam Bleier took over the case on behalf of the Justice Project. He petitioned for review of the ruling to Arizona Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals denied review. The Justice Project then sought review from the Arizona Supreme Court.
The Court agreed to hear the case, and ultimately granted relief by concluding that Donna had established a colorable claim of insufficient evidence. The Court remanded the case back to the trial court for additional hearings. In 2007, prior to those hearings, the prosecutor dismissed the murder conviction, and, instead of serving a life sentence, Donna was released from prison in 2013.