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Benitez v. State

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

May 20, 2014

RUBEN ORLANDO BENITEZ A/K/A RUBEN O. BENITEZ, APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI, APPELLEE

Page 135

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: HARRISON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 03/07/2013. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. JOHN C. GARGIULO. TRIAL COURT CONVICTED OF MURDER AND SENTENCED TO LIFE IN THE CUSTODY OF THE MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS.

FOR APPELLANT: OFFICE OF STATE PUBLIC DEFENDER, BY: GEORGE T. HOLMES, BENJAMIN ALLEN SUBER.

FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL, BY: LADONNA C. HOLLAND.

BEFORE LEE, C.J., ROBERTS, CARLTON AND JAMES, JJ. LEE, C.J., IRVING AND GRIFFIS, P.JJ., BARNES, ISHEE, ROBERTS, MAXWELL AND FAIR, JJ., CONCUR. JAMES, J., CONCURS IN PART AND DISSENTS IN PART WITHOUT SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION.

OPINION

Page 136

NATURE OF THE CASE: CRIMINAL - FELONY

CARLTON, J.

¶1. On March 7, 2013, a Harrison County jury convicted Ruben Orlando Benitez of murder. The Harrison County Circuit Court sentenced Benitez to life in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC). Benitez now appeals his conviction and sentence.

FACTS

¶ 2. On the morning of September 18, 2011, Sergeant Joey Fore with the D'Iberville, Mississippi Police Department and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) representative Jonathan Rhodes performed a welfare check at the apartment of Stacey Wright. Wright was employed by TSA at the Gulfport Biloxi Regional Airport and had failed to report to work that day. Sergeant Fore and Rhodes were accompanied by Steve Ramsey, the courtesy officer for Wright's apartment complex. Upon arriving to Wright's apartment in D'Iberville, Sergeant Fore found that the door was unlocked. Upon entering, Sergeant Fore saw Wright's lifeless body in the hallway. Sergeant Fore observed that Wright had a wound on her left chest and dried blood on her shirt.

¶3. Later that afternoon, Detective Marty Griffin of the D'Iberville Police Department spoke to Kent Banks, the law enforcement liaison for TSA, and Benitez, the assistant federal security director for TSA and also Wright's boss, regarding Wright's death. During this conversation, Detective Griffin learned that Wright had been involved in a romantic relationship with another TSA employee and that the two had been together on the day of Wright's murder. Detective Griffin then drove to Jackson, Mississippi, to meet with Banks and Benitez in order to follow up on the investigation.

¶4. Detective Griffin met Banks and Benitez at the Jackson Police Department (JPD). Detective Griffin testified that upon meeting Benitez, he noticed that Benitez had a Band-Aid on his right-hand pinky finger. When asked about the injury, Benitez responded that he cut his finger washing his car. Detective Griffin found the cut on Benitez's finger to be significant, since Wright had been stabbed to death. While at the police department, Benitez was advised of, and then waived, his Miranda rights. During the initial questioning by Detective Griffin, Benitez denied any relationship with Wright and denied that he was in D'Iberville on the day of her murder. However, Benitez eventually confessed that he and Wright were having an affair and that he had been in D'Iberville on the day of the murder. JPD officers obtained biological samples from Benitez, which Detective Griffin took possession of and delivered to the D'Iberville Police Department. Benitez made no confession regarding Wright's murder, and the officers told Benitez that he was free to leave at the conclusion of the questioning.

¶5. Search warrants for Benitez's home in Pearl, Mississippi, his personal vehicle, and his government vehicle were executed. During the search, officers discovered blood in the cabin of Benitez's personal vehicle, and a bloody pair of men's shoes in the trunk. Law enforcement officers then traveled to the Jackson airport to search Benitez's government vehicle.

¶6. On the evening of September 19, 2011, assistant special agents for the Office of the Inspector General [1] Terry Crump

Page 137

and Donald Bratton arrived at the Jackson-Evers International Airport in Jackson, Mississippi, to assist local law enforcement with the search of the TSA vehicle. Upon arriving at the airport, Special Agent Crump was advised that Benitez was inside the airport waiting on his wife's flight to arrive. Special Agent Crump entered the airport and approached Benitez. He informed Benitez that he was not under arrest, but that he would like to speak to Benitez about Wright's death.

¶7. Benitez agreed to speak to Special Agent Crump, but requested that he be allowed to talk to his wife first, who was flying in from Chicago. However, due to bad weather, Mrs. Benitez's flight was delayed until the next morning. After Benitez called his wife, he went to a public area at the airport to talk with Special Agent Crump and another agent, Donald Bratton.

¶8. Special Agent Crump gave Benitez a " rights advisement for employees" form [2] to read and sign. Benitez signed the form. Special Agent Crump then asked Benitez if he had any involvement or knowledge regarding the murder of Wright. Special Agent Crump informed Benitez that blood stains had been found in Benitez's car. Benitez then admitted to stabbing Wright.

¶9. Benitez informed the agents that it was difficult to discuss the events surrounding Wright's death, and that he would prefer to write about it. He walked over to another small table and prepared a written statement describing in detail the evening of Wright's death. Benitez then returned to the agents. Special Agent Crump swore Benitez to the statement. Benitez also drew a diagram of Wright's apartment, the scene of the murder.

¶10. Shortly after, Officer Joel Wallace, a detective from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, arrived at the airport. Officer Wallace advised Benitez of his rights, and proceeded to interview him. At trial, Officer Wallace testified that Benitez told him that he was in fact having an extramarital affair with Wright, and that prior to the incident, he and Wright were eating at the Island View Casino. Benitez and Wright were both married to other people, but Wright was separated from her husband. During the meal, Benitez and Wright began discussing their marriage relationships, and the conversation continued after they left the casino and arrived at Wright's apartment. Officer Wallace testified that Benitez admitted to stabbing Wright at her apartment that night, then gathering his clothing, getting into his car, and driving back to Jackson on Highway 49. Benitez stated that he dropped off his clothing along the way.

¶11. Benitez was arrested on September 19, 2011, and subsequently indicted for one count of murder pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated 97-3-19(1)(a). ...


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