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Should they be dead?: Suspected killer should be in prison

If the right man has been arrested, if the accused is proven guilty, if a multitude of mistakes had been avoided, Lawrence Alvin Smith and Kenneth Dixie may have never been found dead in a soybean field off a Perry County road.

On June 19, a Uniontown farmer, Tom Belcher, found Smith and Dixie dead from gunshot wounds to the head. After an investigation by the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, the Uniontown Police and the Perry County Sheriff’s Department, Charlie Bennett, of Uniontown, was arrested and charged with the murder of Smith and Dixie.

Thursday, it was discovered Bennett should not have been in Uniontown. He should have been locked away for at least six more years in a federal prison.

Just 18 months ago, Bennett pleaded guilty to charges of bank robbery and assault. He was sentenced to four years in a state penitentiary for the assault and eight years in a federal prison for the bank robbery.

While serving a state sentence, criminals have the opportunity for early release. Conviction and sentencing on the federal level, however, mandates that a criminal serve the entire term.

Charlie Bennett should have been locked away until August 2010. Instead, he walked straight to freedom after erroneously being released from a state of Alabama prison on May 1, 2004.

Just 49 days later, he allegedly murdered two Uniontown men during the course of a robbery.

Bennett’s criminal history

On May 10, 2002, Bennett and Stanley Leon Maiten robbed Robertson Banking Co. in Thomaston. Marengo County Sheriff Jesse Langley found Bennett along a county road and picked him up; later Langley discovered that Bennett was wanted in connection with the robbery.

Along with the robbery of more than $13,000 from the bank, Bennett was charged with second-degree assault.

“It became a federal case because of the bank robbery,” said District Attorney Greg Griggers. At the time of the case, Griggers was the assistant district attorney for Nathan Watkins.

Soon, the FBI and U.S. Marshals from Mobile became involved in the bank robbery case. According to Griggers, the federal government took custody of Bennett while state and federal attorneys worked out plans for prosecution.

“In a case like this, we always let the federal government prosecute,” Griggers said.

On Aug. 29, 2002, a federal grand jury in Mobile indicted Bennett for one count of bank robbery by force and two counts of using or carrying a firearm during a crime of violence.

Two weeks later, a Marengo County grand jury indicted Bennett on counts of second-degree assault and first-degree robbery.

With the indictments in hand, both the federal government and the district attorney had power to prosecute Bennett for the crimes.

The Prosecution

At the time, District Attorney Nathan Watkins had a number of options for the prosecution of Bennett. He could drop all state charges and allow U.S. Attorneys to prosecute the suspect on bank robbery charges. He had the option of prosecuting Bennett for assault and robbery. Or, he could prosecute Bennett for assault and allow the federal government to prosecute the bank robbery case.

Griggers, who helped with the case, said the DA’s office decided on the latter.

“We wanted the federal government to handle the robbery case because [Bennett] would get more time in prison,” Griggers said. “And that would be time served.”

In other words, if Bennett were convicted of the bank robbery, he would have to serve every single day of his sentence in federal prison. If the state had prosecuted and won a conviction for the same thing, there was a chance Bennett could be released from jail earlier.

“We decided we would prosecute for the assault and drop the state charges of robbery,” Griggers said.

With that decision, Bennett and his attorney, Walter Greiss, agreed to a plea bargain with the district attorney. On January 13, 2003, Bennett pleaded guilty in a Marengo County court to assault, and District Judge Eddie Hardaway sentenced Bennett to four years in prison.

At the bottom of Hardaway’s order, and in the conviction report filed by Marengo County Circuit Clerk Rusty Nichols, the four-year assault sentence was to run concurrent with a federal sentence of 97 months on charges of bank robbery and use of a fire arm.

Just three weeks earlier, Bennett had pleaded guilty to those federal charges and received a sentence of eight years in prison — time he would serve without possibility of early release.

The mix-up begins

When Bennett appeared in Marengo County on Jan. 13, 2003, he was in the custody of U.S. Marshals.

“They kept transporting him back and forth,” said Sheriff Jesse Langley.

According to Griggers, once Bennett accepted the plea agreement, the state and Marengo County officials were finished with Bennett.

“The sentence he got from us was supposed to run concurrent with his federal sentence,” Griggers said.

To Griggers, and nearly everyone else involved in the case, the assumption was that Bennett would leave Marengo County on Jan. 13, 2003, just as he arrived — in the custody of U.S. Marshals.

That’s not what happened. Instead, Bennett was left with Langley in Marengo County where the admitted bank robber would begin serving his four-year sentence for assault. Once that sentence was complete, Bennett would then be transported to federal prison in Mobile.

Griggers and Watkins had no idea Bennett was left in Marengo County.

“If we had known they were going to make him serve his state sentence first, we would have dropped charges in a heartbeat and let him serve his federal sentence,” Griggers said.

Nichols, who reviewed the conviction report Thursday, said it seemed obvious that Bennett should have returned back to Mobile with U.S. Marshals.

“Based on what this says, I would assume that he would just serve the four year assault sentence while he was serving the federal sentence,” Nichols said.

The imprisonment

Obviously, Bennett never returned to Mobile with U.S. Marshals. Instead, he fell under the custody of Sheriff Langley.

“We got him on Jan. 10, 2003, and sent him to Kilby [a state prison in Montgomery] on April 21, 2003,” Langley said.

Because Bennett would have to serve his federal sentence after his state time, Langley was provided a detainer order from the federal government. In essence, a detainer order says that once a criminal has completed one sentence, he must be transported to another prison to serve another sentence.

“I have a copy of that detainer order in [Bennett’s] files,” Langley said Thursday.

On Feb. 4, 2003, U.S. Marshals sent that order to Langley.

“It’s pretty clear what’s on that order,” said Jim Copeland, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals in Mobile.

Along with instructions to return the convict to another prison, a detainer order also instructs the custodian of the prisoner — in this case, that was Langley — to notify the federal government if the prisoner is moved.

On April 21, 2003, Langley sent Bennett to Kilby in Montgomery. Langley believes he followed procedures and sent the detainer order from the federal government in a packet to the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Brian Corbett, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said there is no detainer order in Bennett’s file. In other words, state officials had no idea Bennett was to be transported back to a federal prison after his state sentence was complete.

Even worse, Copeland said U.S. Marshals had no idea Bennett had ever left Marengo County.

“We were never notified that Charlie Bennett was sent to Montgomery,” Copeland said. “We just found out within the last week.”

Last week, it was too late. Bennett came up for release from state prison on May 1, 2004, and the Department of Corrections watched as Bennett walked out the door to unexpected freedom.

What happened?

On Thursday, Langley said he couldn’t specifically recall what he did with the detainer order nearly 18 months ago.

“I know it’s in his file here,” he said. “I can’t tell you that, yes, I sent the detainer or no, I didn’t. I’m not going to try to pass the buck, but I’m not going to tell you that I did something wrong.”

Langley also said he couldn’t remember if he notified the federal government when Bennett was transferred from Marengo County to Montgomery.

Copeland said there is no record of Bennett’s transfer in the U.S. Marshal’s office. If his office would have been contacted about the transfer of Bennett, U.S. Marshals then would have notified the Department of Corrections and sent them a detainer order. Langley and the Marengo County Sheriff’s Department would have been released from handling Bennett. Instead, state officials had no idea Bennett was supposed to be detained, and U.S. Marshals had no idea Bennett ever left Linden.

When told details of the story, Griggers said it made no sense that Bennett would have served state time when a federal sentence ran concurrent with the shorter sentence. Langley said Thursday that he didn’t know if a state and federal sentence could be served concurrently.

Bill Clark, president of the Alabama Bar Association and one of the state’s most respected criminal attorneys, said there is no law that divides state and federal prison sentences.

“It’s strictly up to the federal order and the state order,” Clark said. “You have to read what they say and the two parties have to agree.”

From the district attorney’s point of view, Bennett was in custody of the federal government and had already pleaded guilty to federal charges when he pleaded to state charges in Marengo County. There should have been no confusion about where Bennett would be imprisoned.

What’s next?

For the families of Lawrence Alvin Smith and Kenneth Dixie, it’s too late to correct the mistakes made in the handling of Charlie Bennett. Both men are dead, and Bennett is charged with their murders.

Ed Greene, district attorney for the 4th Judicial Circuit, said Bennett was indicted by a Perry County grand jury on Wednesday for the murders of Smith and Dixie. Bennett faces two charges of murder during a robbery and the murder of two or more people.

“I think we’ve got a pretty good case against him,” Greene said Thursday. “From what we know, Bennett told [Smith and Dixie] that he was robbing them, and then he shot both of them.”

In fact, Greene believes Bennett only turned the gun on Dixie because Dixie was a passenger in the car.

“He shot [Dixie] because he was a witness,” Greene said.

As for Bennett’s incarceration, Greene said it has not yet been determined where the suspect will be detained.

“Right now, we have him and his bond is no bond,” Greene said.

There is an option that Bennett could be sent to federal prison to serve time for the 2002 bank robbery until he stands trial for the murders of Smith and Dixie.

According to Greene, Selma attorney George Jones has been appointed to represent Bennett on the murder charges.