Fred W. Bennett; Lawyer Led Death-Penalty Appeals
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Fred Warren Bennett, 65, a former public defender who served as lead counsel on death penalty appeals cases in Maryland and was regarded as one of the top appellate lawyers in the state, died July 1 at Baltimore Washington Medical Center after a two-car accident in Anne Arundel County.
Mr. Bennett was driving eastbound on Route 100 in Glen Burnie when he made a U-turn and started heading north on Route 10, Maryland State Police said. Mr. Bennett's car and a southbound vehicle collided.
Mr. Bennett's legal efforts have gained reduced sentences, new trials or the outright release of dozens of criminal defendants over a legal career that began in the late 1960s.
In recent years, Mr. Bennett successfully appealed the conviction of James R. Logan, a Prince George's County man convicted of killing two county sheriff's deputies in 2002. Logan's retrial ended in a hung jury last month. Mr. Bennett argued that Logan was criminally insane at the time of the shootings.
Mr. Bennett attracted wide attention for his defense -- which lasted more than a decade -- of Steven H. Oken, who was executed in 2004, the state's first execution since 1998. Oken was put to death for a 1987 rampage in which he sexually assaulted and murdered three women from Maryland to Maine.
Mr. Bennett became known inside the courtroom as a voluble, sometimes bullying figure in defense of his clients. He often contended that Maryland law was unconstitutional because of the standard that judges or juries were to use when deciding whether to put someone to death.
When Oken's final appeal was denied, Mr. Bennett told reporters: "It's like my own son being killed. He was a good man; he was not a monster. He was sick. He was mentally ill. You should not kill mentally ill people."
Mr. Bennett was born in Bay City, Mich., June 15, 1942. He was a graduate of American University and George Washington University Law School, where he also received a master's degree in law.
He was a defense lawyer at Washington area private practices before becoming a Prince George's public defender in 1978, the year Maryland re-instituted the death penalty.
He was a Baltimore-based federal public defender from 1980 to 1992. Among those he defended were Ronald W. Pelton, a former National Security Agency communications expert, and John A. Walker Jr., who led a Navy spy ring. Both defendants sold secrets to the Soviets and received life sentences.
In the 1990s, Mr. Bennett taught law at Catholic and American universities. He also began a law practice, now in Greenbelt, that focuses on state and federal criminal defense.
In 2004, he made news by hiring as a partner his longtime legal antagonist Gary E. Bair, solicitor general in the Maryland attorney general's office who had also been chief of the criminal appeals division.
"He wore people down," Bair said yesterday. "He was aggressive, tenacious. He treated every motion, every evidentiary ruling, every little point as if it were the most important thing. A lot of lawyers might say, 'I'm going to let that point go to concentrate on a more important thing.' "
Mr. Bennett lectured widely on federal rules of evidence and federal sentencing and wrote more than 30 articles in the legal press on criminal law, evidence and trial practice issues. He received several Maryland bar association awards for his work in criminal law.
Survivors include his wife of 41 years, Susan Smith Bennett of Gambrills; two daughters, Stephanie Mackall of Catonsville and Melanie Waligoske of Eugene, Ore.; a brother; two sisters; and a granddaughter.
Staff writers Ruben Castaneda and Susan Levine contributed to this report.