Father's heartbreaking vigil ends in feeling of numbness

December 14, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

THE MARBLE hallways in the Mitchell Courthouse are long and dimly lighted, the floors shiny and stark, and there are sleepy men and bored women on benches, all lumped up in winter coats, waiting to be called to trial. There's almost always an echo in the old halls, whispers on the walls. Doors lead to chambers and to courtrooms, and sometimes to truth, sometimes to justice, and sometimes to that empty feeling Ray Bennett said he felt the other day.

It's what he meant when he said he felt numb -- a young man had died a violent death, and the other young man accused of killing him walked out of the courthouse Friday afternoon.

Ray Bennett, the father of the dead man, believed Samtoya Williams had murdered his son -- that he had stabbed him in a drunken rage one night in April last year -- but now, as he listened to the verdicts, he knew the jury was not convinced of this, even after spending the better part of five days in deliberations. The part of Ray Bennett that is difficult to engage right now -- the part that is still a journalist (he was a television reporter in Baltimore for 12 years), the part that is rational and detached -- might appreciate that the jurors took their duty seriously and gave the available facts every consideration.

"But I'm a father," Bennett said.

And so he was left numb by the verdicts -- "Not guilty. ... Not guilty. ... Not guilty" -- stunned that the jury did not see his son's death outside his girlfriend's house on Presbury Street in West Baltimore as first- or even second-degree murder. In fact, as many as eight of the 12 jurors believed at one point that Williams had acted in self-defense, some of the jurors told me Friday. In the end, seven of them still felt that way. So the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on whether the death of Corey Bennett constituted manslaughter.

A mistrial on that charge was declared, and Samtoya Williams may be in court again.

And that, of course, would extend Ray Bennett's vigil.

He's been watching over the case carefully and can describe its handling in detail. He'll tell you about postponements and express quiet outrage at the judge who, during a hearing in summer, suddenly decided to set Williams' bail low enough that he could be released while he awaited trial. He talks about how his son's character was impugned during the trial, but the defendant's was protected. Bennett's face grows grim and pained when he goes over this.

That's not how most Baltimoreans would remember him.

Most probably remember a happier, spirited reporter from the "Action News" days at Channel 11, in the 1970s and 1980s, when there was time and desire for something known as the local-interest feature story, a segment in the newscast that did not bleed, and might make you laugh or cry. Ray Bennett, with his rich baritone, was very good at this type of story. He wrote clever words to complement artful video. His segments were known as "Ray's Way," and they covered a wide range of topics, and frequently you would see children in them. Bennett seemed to be especially good at telling stories about kids at school and at play. In the 1980s, when I was a colleague of his at Channel 11, Bennett became deeply disturbed by violence among young people. We had seen a series of killings in the city related to teen-agers and their designer apparel, leather coats and tennis shows.

It was around that time that Bennett, not content to remain the detached journalist-observer, took a keen interest in the idea of uniforms for Baltimore public school students and, eventually, championed that cause and became a paid consultant to school districts interested in the initiative. Baltimore became the nation's first major school district to adopt a voluntary uniform policy, and other cities have experimented with the idea.

"We figured that uniforms, coupled with enforced dress codes that would prohibit such things as jewelry, might help, and might have educational value as well," Bennett explained after he left Channel 11 in 1988. Parents could save money on clothing, he believed, and kids could spend less time worrying about what to wear and more time on studies.

It was young people Ray Bennett wanted to help -- his son, Corey, among them.

Later, he started a computer business, and by the time his son had reached his 20s, he was planning to make him a partner. He wanted to set Corey up with a little cellular phone enterprise. They had a lot of father-son conversations about what Bennett calls "the realities of life." He remembers many times saying, "Corey, I don't want to lose you to the street. ... Walk away from trouble."

Beat the odds. Walk away.

And Ray Bennett believes his son was doing that when he was killed. He'll always believe that. "I knew my son," he says. "He was not the type to argue. He was a good kid."

Ray Bennett's last duty as a father was to keep watch over the trial of Corey's accused killer, and he carried out that duty.

When the verdicts came in Friday afternoon, you could hear women crying along the marble walls of the Mitchell building, and Samtoya Williams, the relieved defendant, stood outside the courtroom with his father, Sam Williams, and he quietly thanked the jurors and God-blessed them all as they put on their coats and left down the stairs.

In minutes, the hallways of the old courthouse seemed particularly quiet and empty again.

"I didn't go into the trial expecting to get Corey back," Ray Bennett said a few hours later. "What I wanted was to know the truth about what happened that night, and I believe I know that now. The father [of Samtoya Williams] expressed condolences. I hope this young man [Williams] turns his life around. He's gotten away with murder, and he knows it. I don't hate that young man. I hate the circumstances that befall us all -- the violence, the insensitivity. It's everywhere.

"We've got to do better."

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