By Michael R. Moser
While there may be confusion over Jacob Allen Bennett's plea in Cumberland County Criminal Court to the shooting deaths of four people last month, state prosecutors left no doubt as to their seeking the death penalty.
District Attorney Randy York announced to Judge David Patterson yesterday that his office filed notice to seek enhanced punishment of the death sentence, should the state be able to convict Bennett. That noticed was filed just moments before court convened.
Bennett, 26, Woodbridge Rd., and Brittany Lina Yvonn Moser, 25, Railroad St., Dayton, TN, are charged in a ten count indictment with four counts of first-degree murder, four counts of felony murder (homicide while in commission of another crime) and two counts of especially aggravated robbery.
The bodies of Danielle "Rikki" Jacobsen, 22; Domonic Davis, 17; Steven Presley, 17; and John Lajeunesse, 16; were discovered in Jacobsen's Dodge car parked on a remote cul de sac in an undeveloped subdivision on Regegade Mountain Sept. 12. All had been shot do death.
The death penalty enhancement notice only applies to Bennett, who last week stunned those in the courtroom by stating he wished to plead guilty to the four deaths without benefit of counsel. Judge Patterson did not accept that plea, and instead, asked Shelbyville attorney and Crossville native Robert Marlow to meet with Bennett to go over his rights. Arraignment was then continued to yesterday.
Patterson granted Marlow's motion to appoint James A. Simmons, a death penalty experienced defense attorney from Nashville, as co-counsel.
Yesterday, Patterson appointed Marlow as permanent counsel for Bennett after Bennett said neither he nor his family could afford an attorney. Marlow then entered a not guilty plea, but hedged by telling the court that the plea should not negate Bennett's guilty utterance of last week.
This leaves both a guilty and not guilty plea pending before the court. While Patterson said he never accepted the plea, he did not reject it in open court.
Last week Marlow stated in court that Bennett had a right to represent himself during the arraignment and to enter a guilty plea on first appearance if he desired. Pleading guilty during arraignment without benefit of counsel is something that has not been witnessed here, and apparently caught court officials off guard.
If Bennett's guilty plea last week is allowed to stand, it could remove the death penalty enhancement from the case because prosecutors had not filed notice of the enhancement, Marlow believes.
York told the Chronicle that he believes Patterson did not accept the guilty plea and that consideration of the utterance is not at issue.
If both sides remain apart in their positions, the issue could be put before the judge to decide and Marlow predicted that no matter which way Patterson rules, the side losing the argument will forward the issue to the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals, which could greatly delay a trial.
The case against Bennett was continued to Nov. 18 at 1 p.m. at which time it is expected that Marlow will again question the status of Bennett's utterance during his first arraignment appearance.
Crossville attorney Kevin Bryant was appointed to represent Moser, who told the court she did not understand the charges against her and was not guilty of what the indictment claimed.
Moser's only business before the court was to have a hearing date set on Bryant's motion that Moser "be released on her own recognizane or, in the alternative, that a reasonable bond be set."
Patterson set a Nov. 18 at 1 p.m. hearing date for that motion. Bryant indicated there may be other motions filed before that date that could be heard at that time.