The Transylvania Times -

New Details Lead To Dropped Charges – Transylvania County, NC

 

January 13, 2020

Lynn Benton spent more than a year in the Transylvania County detention center, but charges against him were dropped.

After 48-year-old Lynn Benton spent more than a year in the Transylvania County Detention Center, charges, including felony indecent liberties with a child, were dropped against him, and now he wants the public to know why.

"There have been threats made against my life," Benton said. "I've had people yell child molester at me and try to start fights with me in a parking lot."

Court records show that in the spring of 2016, a 6-year-old child in the Transylvania County school system complained to a teacher she was having trouble concentrating in school because one of her father's friends had touched her inappropriately. The school reported the information to the Department of Social Services (DSS).

Benton was arrested on three felony charges in April 2018 after an investigation by the Transylvania County Sheriff's Office.

He faced charges of two counts of indecent liberties with a child and one count of statutory sex offense with a child by an adult.

Benton had actually been indicted on the charges in February 2018 but at the time he was in California working. He said he found out about the charges and turned himself in to authorities in California and was returned to Transylvania County.

Back in Transylvania, Benton was also charged with a probation violation, which was related to a DWI conviction and unrelated to the alleged sex offense case.

Of the 17 months he waited in jail for the three sex offense charges to be resolved, 12 months also counted toward the probation violation sentence.

The three felony charges were dropped in September 2019 after the District Attorney's Office was provided new evidence by Benton's lawyer, Tony Dalton. An investigator working for Dalton found a DSS report that documented the victim's father giving inconsistent statements to DSS and the Sheriff's Office about the alleged abuser's identity.

In Benton's release papers from last September, Assistant District Attorney Beth Dierauf wrote, "I have recently received a file from the Department of Social Services, which contains the meetings with the (victim's father) who told the social worker that when he learned of what happened from his daughter, he went looking for a different person than Lynn Benton.

"(The father) reported that name to the social worker in a home visit later that day. In a separate meeting with (Det. Garreth Frady), he said when he learned of it, he kicked 'Lynn' out of the house. He later reported to the social worker that his daughter had no memory of who did this to her. With this new information showing conflicting perpetrators provided by (the father), the state cannot proceed with the prosecution of these charges. I have been unable to locate (the father) to discuss this with him, but I have talked with the mother."

According to Sheriff David Mahoney, his office was not made aware that there might be a second suspect in the case or that the victim's father accused two different men in two different interviews until Dierauf received files from Dalton in 2019.

"You know the expectation is obviously that we're working together and the information is being shared between the two agencies to reach the appropriate outcome," said Mahoney. "That would be typical of what we would expect – that the information be shared. But at the same time, they are separate, parallel investigations because (DSS) have their primary focus. Obviously, it is the welfare of the child in that particular scenario, and ours is to collect any evidence of a particular crime and prepare that, so that the district attorney can prosecute, if possible."

Mahoney said the DSS report documenting the father's accusation of the perpetrator was not shared with his office at the time because DSS' primary goal was to figure out if the alleged abuser was a caregiver or lived inside the family home.

Once DSS found out the alleged abuser was not a family member, it closed its case and moved on, and the Sheriff's Office continued its investigation with the information the child's father had provided.

Mahoney said his office and DSS were going through personnel changes at the time, which may have contributed to the information gap.

"I think that this case is probably more of an anomaly than anything else because the relationship and the sharing of information is there," he said. "It happens. Certainly, there was a piece of information, whether true or not in this particular case, that we didn't have access to. Det. Gale Mackey meets regularly with folks from DSS and serves on a couple of different teams with social services."

District Attorney Greg Newman said he doesn't fault law enforcement for following the leads it was given, but the information brought to his office by Dalton cast too much doubt on a witness' credibility.

"In this case we got information late in the game that cast some questions about the credibility of what the initial witness was saying about who did this," Newman said. "It's to the extent that it raises too many issues about...did this man actually commit these crimes or not? And were we to go to court and panel a jury to go to court, well we've got some issues. (The father) is now going to have to be cross-examined. Our standard of proof is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That's the highest standard there is, and given the information provided, that's not a standard we can sustain and support. And, so, we look at it to say, 'OK, is there any way to clean this up? Is there evidence to corroborate that this defendant did this and we can explain this other or not?' In this case, there wasn't."

Before Benton's arrest, the alleged child victim was given a photo lineup at school and identified Benton's picture, according to a police report. In interviews with The Transylvania Times, Benton and Theresa Dean, the investigator who worked on the case for Dalton, cast doubt on the child definitively choosing Benton from the line up, as the interview was only recorded audibly (not by video) and the child is not heard speaking throughout the tape.

The report from the lineup, in addition to the father's interview and interviews with witnesses, provided much of the information that led to Benton's indictment. Benton and his legal team, however, say there is evidence the child was coached to pick Benton's face out of the photo lineup.

"We, early on in the investigation, were alerted to a third party that told us – told Lynn, told me, told Theresa, wrote statements – basically indicating that somebody (a third party) had influenced the alleged victim to supposedly pick Lynn out of the lineup," Dalton said. "Almost within days of me getting involved in the case, Lynn is telling me there is this man who can tell you this. And that got us going down that path, so to speak."

In addition to the DSS report documenting the father giving the name of another man (Ron), the child disclosed a name other than Lynn's as her abuser, according to a school employee. The school employee's statement to the Sheriff's Office said, "(The child) stated that a man named something like Ron 'started with a R-sound' had touched her."

In other DSS reports, Dean said she has also seen the child mention the man with the "R" name when referring to this event, but never Benton.

Benton believes the alleged victim's father was trying to get back at him for previously reporting the family to DSS for alleged child abuse.

"They found out that I had reported them to DSS and that's where my trouble started with them," he said.

Dean corroborated Benton's claim that he contacted DSS.

Benton said he was at the family's house often, and he did get in an altercation with the child's father, but it was over money. Benton said the father owed him money for a painting job.

Both Newman and Dalton said they believe the Sheriff's Office followed its leads to the best of its ability and there were circumstances that made Benton's guilt look probable until the new information was provided. Both believe the case wouldn't have held up in court. Newman said the new information doesn't mean that Benton didn't commit the crimes, for certain, or that if he had been convicted, it would have been a miscarriage of justice, but his office simply can't deny the conflicting evidence.

"Information that comes to us, and even if it is against the case that were trying to prosecute, I mean you're not going to try to conceal that, to be sure," Newman said. "We have a duty ethically to...make the decision whether we can or can't go for (the prosecution)."

Mahoney and Newman believe that a similar thing that happened to Benton occurring again is unlikely because of the creation in 2018 of the Children's Advocacy Center, which helps agencies within the county collaborate when it comes to child welfare.

"The team approach is absolutely in place," Mahoney said. "I have zero concern now that there be any kind of lapse of sharing of information because the teamwork that we have right now in place is great."

Benton said he now just wants to get on with his life.

"What can you do after something like this?" he said. "I honestly thought I was going to have to move completely away to a different state. When you're charged with something like this or any crime at all, you're all over the place – you're in the media, the Internet. You're everywhere.

"But, you know, when you're found not guilty or cleared it's not like they print a retraction. They don't say, 'Hey, you know we just want everybody to know that's a bunch of bull....' You know, they never do that. You just fall through the cracks and crevices."

 
 

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