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Sentenced To Life At 16 In Slaying Of Man Who She Said Pulled A Gun On Her

In 1996, Michele Benjamin was sentenced to life without parole for killing a man who she said solicited her for sex and menaced her with a weapon in New Orleans. A Supreme Court decision led her to be re-sentenced to life with a chance at parole in 2016. Today, a parole hearing brings the possibility of freedom.

Michele BenjaminPhoto illustration by Anagraph. Photo via Christine Breland Lobre/Women With A Vision

It was well after midnight on a Sunday in May 1994, and Michele Benjamin and Chanda Desilva were hanging out in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Their friends had gone home, but Benjamin, 16, and Desilva, 18, stayed out. They walked around the historic neighborhood and shared a beer until they met a man named Martin Hecker on Bourbon Street. Hecker, a German serviceman, was visiting New Orleans from Fort Rucker, an Alabama Army base where he was training.

Hecker insisted on walking the girls home. Then, at approximately 4 a.m., New Orleans police found him in Louis Armstrong Park, in the Treme neighborhood just outside the French Quarter. Hecker was critically injured with a gunshot wound; Desilva was standing by him. He later died from his injuries; an autopsy revealed the cause of death to be a single gunshot wound to his left side, which injured his left lung, spleen, and aorta.

Law enforcement had the gun and two suspects, but no clear motive. There were no witnesses, only the accounts of Benjamin and Desilva. Desilva was arrested immediately, and her story was inconsistent. But Benjamin was steadfast. She turned herself in willingly, and explained to police that she shot Hecker out of fear. She said—and Desilva confirmed—that Hecker solicited them for sex, telling them that he was looking for a “date.” Benjamin told police that Hecker got angry when she rejected him. Things escalated, and Hecker pulled out a gun and fired a warning shot. Benjamin tried to wrestle the gun away from him and in the struggle it  went off again, this time striking Hecker. He knocked Benjamin to the ground before collapsing. She got up and ran. From the beginning, she insisted the gun was not hers.

But Benjamin, a Black girl, was a homeless teenage mother, and Orleans Parish prosecutors were immediately skeptical of her story despite the fact that she had no criminal record.  They acknowledged that Hecker solicited the teenagers for sex and that a struggle ensued afterward. But they also insisted that Benjamin and Desilva did not act in self-defense; they were instead greedy, evil murderers who sought to rob and kill Hecker. (Desilva later admitted to a police officer that she took Hecker’s wallet after he was shot—but insisted she only did so because feared someone else would steal it.)

Desilva and Benjamin were charged with first-degree murder by the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office, which in the mid-1990s was so proud of doling out harsh punishments to people in the majority Black city that one prosecutor had a model electric chair on his desk.

In November 1995, an Orleans Parish jury found Desilva guilty of manslaughter; she was later sentenced to 20 years in prison. Benjamin, just 16 when the shooting occurred, was convicted of second-degree murder. In 1996, she was sentenced to life without parole (LWOP). She would die in prison for a crime she committed as a child.  

A system that severely punishes victims—especially when they resemble Benjamin.

Benjamin’s case sits at the intersection of two of the criminal legal system’s most extreme cruelties: harsh sentences for juveniles and the criminalization of survivors. In the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not condemn children to LWOP without considering factors such as their maturity, upbringing, or potential to reoffend. Miller applied only to ongoing and future cases but a 2016 Supreme Court ruling, Montgomery v. Louisiana, made the decision retroactive. Equally important, in Montgomery the court stated that LWOP sentences should be given only to a young person “whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”

There has yet to be a big, Miller- or Montgomery-like reckoning for the way in which the criminal legal system punishes women for defending themselves. But there are numerous such cases that have received enormous attention from the media and advocacy groups like Survived and Punished, and have found relief in the courts. On Jan. 7, Cyntoia Brown was granted clemency by outgoing Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam; like Benjamin, she was charged, convicted, and sentenced to LWOP for killing a man who solicited her for sex when she was a teenager. In June 2018, the Louisiana Supreme Court granted a new trial to Catina Curley of New Orleans, who was sentenced to LWOP in 2007 for what she said was the self-defense killing of her husband, Renaldo Curley. Curley endured a staggering history of abuse from Renaldo including being struck by a broom, having her head slammed into a wall, choking, and being bitten with such intensity that bite marks were left on her arm. Curley’s new trial is set to begin in New Orleans on Feb. 26.

The criminalization of survivors like Brown, Benjamin, and Curley undercuts a central tenet of the criminal legal system: that it exists to protect victims. Instead, it often severely punishes them, especially when they resemble Brown or Benjamin.

“If she was a white teen that attended a prestigious high school—who wasn’t homeless, who wasn’t a teenage mother, who wasn’t poor, I wonder if she would have been sentenced the same or charged the same or even arrested at all,” said Christine Breland Lobre, program director of Women With A Vision, a New Orleans-based nonprofit seeking to improve the lives of marginalized women, their families, and communities. “I wonder if she would have been seen as a victim rather than an offender.”

Women With A Vision is organizing around—and standing up for—Benjamin as she faces her first parole hearing, which will be held today at the Louisiana Correctional Institution for Women in St. Gabriel, just outside the state capital of Baton Rouge. “Given the way in which Black women and girls are criminalized,” Breland continued,  “the systemic oppression that leads to a 16-year-old being chronically homeless, and given the fact that her account of what happened was not believed by authorities or taken into account, [this] leads me to believe that not only does she deserve to be granted parole, but she should never have been convicted in the first place.”

The Montgomery decision was crucial for people like Benjamin: In 2016, she was re-sentenced to life with a chance at parole. Today, she’s in her 40s and has already served 25 years in prison where she worked to obtain her GED and supported other incarcerated women. The criminal legal system that effectively sentenced her to death by incarceration may now give her another chance at life. “Ms. Benjamin’s case is not unique,” said Breland, “but it is, as are all of the young Black women and girls that have not been believed, deserving of justice.”