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DA candidate Marc Bennett says he’s pragmatic, out to make a difference

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, July 15, 2012, at 6:36 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, August 27, 2013, at 9:38 a.m.

What candidates have to say about the issues

Marc A. Bennett

Age: 42

Occupation: Deputy district attorney

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Kansas State University; law degree, Washburn University

Phone: 316-641-7634

E-mail: marc@bennettda.com

Website: BennettDA.com

What do you consider the most pressing challenge facing the district attorney’s office? How would you address it?

The number of cases in the system, the delays and the increased cost to the system this can cause. I would look at opportunities to hire paralegals to augment smaller trial teams to allow staff attorneys to handle more cases at a reduced cost to the taxpayer. I would stress bringing first time, low level offenders’ cases to finality sooner to get them through the system and alleviate overcrowding in the jail.

If you are elected, what are the most notable changes we should expect to see after you take office?

Transparency. Citizens’ respect and confidence in public offices is directly related to the openness and accessibility of the system. No matter how good the system may work, if citizens don’t see it, it won’t matter. Obviously, confidentiality is paramount but that can’t be a barrier to the public’s right to evaluate the conduct of the office.

How much of the district attorney’s time should be spent managing the office and how much should be spent prosecuting cases in court?

I will be a full time DA, trying cases, managing the office and surrounding myself with quality staff the community can trust. In an office of 50 attorneys, 70 support staff and an $8 million budget, management of the office must be the core responsibility of the DA. The public expects their elected district attorney to be in court handling the difficult cases, too. Because I am a trial attorney at heart, I would continue to appear in court and take cases to trial.

Kevin O’Connor

Age: 48

Occupation: Attorney

Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Kansas; law degree, University of Kansas

Phone: 316-469-9747

E-mail: kevin@oconnor4da.com

Website: www.oconnorforda.com

What do you consider the most pressing challenge facing the district attorney’s office? How would you address it?

The lack of leadership. My administration will hit the ground running with ideas, energy, and enthusiasm. My experience at the local, state, and federal level makes me uniquely qualified to initiate changes in an office that has not changed in a quarter of a century. I will put people and policies in place that will redirect the focus of the office to its core responsibility of fighting crime and protecting the community.

If you are elected, what are the most notable changes we should expect to see after you take office?

I will be a full-time, active, aggressive district attorney. Community outreach and community involvement will be the focus of my office. The office will be involved in schools, neighborhoods, law enforcement and business groups in a constant effort to protect the community and make Sedgwick County a better place for families and businesses alike. Visibility, accountability and accessibility will be key changes in the office.

How much of the district attorney’s time should be spent managing the office and how much should be spent prosecuting cases in court?

As a deputy district attorney, I supervised the entire trial division and carried a full case load. The community expects and deserves to have their district attorney in the courtroom on a regular basis. I understand and appreciate the importance of the administrative responsibilities and I have the qualifications, abilities and experience to perform. I’ll be actively involved in staff training and personally involved in all types of cases, not just high profile ones.

In his closing argument two days after Christmas in 2001, Sedgwick County Assistant District Attorney Marc Bennett told jurors why they should convict Cornelius Oliver of shooting to death four teenagers in a duplex on North Erie.

The four mothers of those teenagers sat on the front row, watching Bennett and listening to every word. A city also watched.

Bennett felt the pressure and responsibility. He looked at those mothers and remembers thinking, “Don’t screw this up.”

On New Year’s Eve, the jury delivered a guilty verdict on four counts of first-degree murder. Oliver was later sentenced to 140 years in prison, meaning he would have to live to 159 before he could be considered for parole.

“I never felt like I was contributing so much,” Bennett said. “It was a moment that changed the arc of my career.”

He quit listening to job pitches from law firms. His consistent answer was, “No, I’m a prosecutor.”

Bennett is now 42 with 17 years experience as a prosecutor, including the last 15 in the Sedgwick County office.

For the past dozen years, he has largely prosecuted cases involving sex crimes, domestic violence, and financial and elder abuse. He was promoted to deputy DA overseeing that division in 2007.

Now Bennett is a Republican candidate for Sedgwick County district attorney in the Aug. 7 primary to replace retiring Nola Foulston.

The Oliver case may have been a defining moment for Bennett, but Rick Kilmer wonders whether a piece of his motivation stems from Jan. 21, 1985.

That was the day James Alan Kearbey, then 14, walked into Goddard Junior High School, fatally shot the principal and wounded two teachers and a student.

Kearbey and Bennett were ninth-grade classmates. Bennett had played football and wrestled for Kilmer, who also taught at the school.

“The day after the shooting, Marc ran up, threw his arms around me and said, ‘Coach, I’m so glad you’re OK,’ ” Kilmer said. “That’s the kind of kid he was.

“I think he also wanted to make a difference. It’s not like that shooting was all he thought about, but you could tell he wanted to make a difference.”

Bennett said he’s stayed away from linking the incident that he called a life-changing experience to his chosen career.

“It’s hard to explain to someone else, but it would be foolish for me to say, ‘Oh, it had no bearing on things,’ ” he said. “I can relate to being caught up in tragedy. I can relate to the desire for justice.”

In a response to The Eagle’s candidate questionnaire, he wrote, “My passion is the protection of vulnerable victims, children and the elderly.”

He cites his temperament as a reason he’s more qualified than his opponent, Kevin O’Connor, a former deputy district attorney under Foulston and his colleague for years.

Bennett describes himself as a traditional Republican – and as rational and pragmatic.

“People ask, ‘Are you mean enough to do this?’ ” Bennett said. “If you’re tough enough to handle looking at some of those pictures and walking in a court holding a 4-year-old girl’s hand so she can describe what someone did to her, maybe you and I have a different definition of toughness.”

Bluegrass music

Bennett grew up on Wichita’s west side and now lives in Cheney with his wife, Tamara, and their three daughters, ages 12, 9 and 5. His father, Bill, had a Pizza Hut franchise; his mother, Patty, was a teacher.

After graduating from Kansas State University in December 1991, he got his law degree from Washburn University. He warns he wouldn’t make a good pitch man for law school because he didn’t enjoy it much.

“But I always enjoyed the criminal stuff, reading about criminal law,” Bennett said. “I guess it’s because it boiled down to someone’s real life. It wasn’t about sewer easements.”

Growing up, he also played the bass. He was 12 when he had his first gig with his father and uncles in the “Bennett Brothers,” a bluegrass band.

He figures that music connection at least helped open the door for Bennett to land an internship and later a job out of law school in the Geary County attorney’s office, headed at the time by Chris Biggs.

Biggs, who was later appointed Kansas securities commissioner and secretary of state, also played guitar in his bluegrass band, “The Usual Suspects.” When the band lost its bass player while Bennett was still in law school, Biggs asked him to step in — a run that lasted about 10 years.

“Part of me says I shouldn’t be telling you this because Chris is a Democrat,” said Bennett, who spent two years as Biggs’ assistant before taking the job in Sedgwick County’s office in 1997. “People think it’s a horrible thing that I played music with a Democrat.

“But we’re friends. Our politics aren’t exactly the same, but politics don’t come up much in bluegrass. We play too fast for small talk.”

Bennett had been seriously considering running for DA for a year or two. He knew Foulston was expected to retire at the end of 2012 from the position she’d held since 1989.

His decision to run was solidified last September shortly before Winfield’s 40th Walnut Valley Festival. These days, the Bennett Brothers band does most of its playing at the festival around a campfire instead of on stage.

A couple of weeks before the festival, Tim Bennett, one of Marc’s uncles and a guitar player in the band, died of cancer. Two weeks earlier, Tim had told his nephew he didn’t want him getting into politics. “ ‘It’s ugly. I don’t want that for you,’ ” Bennett recalled his uncle saying.

Tim’s widow asked Bennett to conduct the funeral the following Wednesday. It lasted two hours. “The most exhausting thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

On that Thursday, as droves of bluegrass fans scurried to find a campsite in preparation for the following week’s festival, Bennett took the day off from work to hang out with friends at the Winfield campground his family has been using since 1986. He needed time to collect his thoughts.

“On the way to work the next day, I said, ‘This is it. Life is too short,’ ” he said.

That day, he walked across the street from the courthouse to the Sedgwick County Election Office and filed to run for DA.

“If you really care about what you do and are proud of the job you’re doing,” Bennett added, “you have to have the nerve to volunteer and raise your hand.”

Ontiberos case

By his count, Bennett has worked 130 jury trials. Four of his 17 homicide trials were capital murder cases.

Attorneys who work in court gave Bennett high marks in a recent survey sponsored by the Wichita Bar Association and The Eagle. Of the 161 who responded about Bennett specifically, 94 percent either strongly agreed or agreed that he is ethical and demonstrates knowledge of the law; 96 percent strongly agreed or agreed he is prepared in court, and 95 percent strongly agreed or agreed he is respectful, courteous and professional.

“Your career speaks for itself, the way you’ve treated people,” Bennett said. “I’d like to think people you work with every day know the kind of person you are.”

He did bump heads with the Kansas appeals court about two years ago when the court ordered a new trial for a convicted sexual predator, saying Bennett had falsified evidence in a court proceeding.

But the court rescinded that order in September 2010 after the evidence was found in a stack of 3,600 documents in the court file about a week later.

The case involved Robert C. Ontiberos, who was convicted of attempted rape in 1983 and aggravated sexual battery in 2001.

When Ontiberos was about to be paroled, Bennett – serving as a special assistant to the state attorney general’s office – sought to have him confined to a mental hospital indefinitely as a sexually violent predator. A district court jury agreed, but Ontiberos appealed.

Michael Whalen, Ontiberos’ attorney during the appeals process, asked for a disciplinary report made on Ontiberos by prison officials and cited by Bennett during the district court trial. That’s the report that was first lost and then found days later.

In January 2011, the appeals court again ordered a new trial based on ineffective work by Ontiberos’ court-appointed attorney in district court and on Bennett’s characterization of an instrument in Ontiberos’ possession as a “crude knife of some sort.”

During an incident in the 1990s, Ontiberos was found with a pen wrapped with duct tape. Prison officials listed the instrument as “less dangerous contraband” in their report, according the appeals court.

“(Bennett’s name for the object) makes a much more violent impact than the ‘less dangerous contraband’ conclusion of the authorities who actually dealt with the object,” wrote Judge Stephen Hill.

The state later asked the state Supreme Court to rule on the appeals court’s decision for a new trial. Oral arguments were made in February; a decision is pending.

On Bennett’s involvement, Whalen said, “I think Marc Bennett is an outstanding prosecutor. Marc is the most honest and fairest prosecutor working in that office. I think the Ontiberos situation is an aberration for Marc, a misremembering.

“At the same time, it was a strong issue in my client’s case.”

Bennett said the situation on the temporarily lost evidence was humbling and made him a better prosecutor.

“You can never be too careful in court,” he said. “I make a better record now than I ever did, meaning, ‘For the record, judge, this is where I found this, on page thus and thus.’ ”

But on the description of the wrapped pen, he said, “I still disagree with the notion that I skewed it. It was a crude knife of some kind.”

Staying in touch

O’Connor has said a culture change is needed in the DA’s office. He has tried to portray Bennett as an extension of Foulston’s 24-year reign that has resulted in what he terms an “arrogant” attitude in the office.

“Arrogant? Really?” Bennett said. “There are things that need to be improved in that office, but I will defend the people I work with.

“I’m not here to defend Nola Foulston. She has been a great boss to me, but I’m not her best buddy. I’m not her clone.”

Foulston called Bennett a team player.

“Marc is what you call a very well-rounded player. He can pick any position,” she said.

Bennett distinguishes himself from his boss.

“She and I are radically different people,” he said. “I don’t care if my name is on the door. It’s not Marc Bennett’s district attorney office. It’s office of district attorney for the 18th Judicial District.

“I live in Cheney; she lives in Eastborough. She went to Italy last year; I took my kids to Arkansas to float around.”

They appear to divide on the abortion issue. Foulston has been a protest target of anti-abortion groups for years.

Bennett said he’s anti-abortion in his personal life, but he quickly adds that position isn’t “relevant to the job” as DA.

“My job is not to appease one group or another,” he said. “My job is to follow the law, period. No one on any side of the issue should be fearful of me as a prosecutor because I’m going to pander to one group or another. I won’t.”

He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that prosecutors are held to a higher standard than other lawyers.

“I have an obligation to seek justice and truth,” he said. “Having the nerve not to charge a case is as important as hammering a guy to the wall.”

Bennett said he would strike a balance between trying cases and administrating an office that has 50 attorneys and 70 support staff.

“I’m not going to make promises I can’t keep and swear I’ll try every murder case,” he said, “but you do have to stay in the courtroom to stay in touch. Try two, three, four cases every year at least. How else are you going to stay in touch with what your people are seeing in the courtrooms? How else are you going to stay in touch with the cops you see in your courtrooms?”

Keeping a pulse on what’s going on in the courthouse is important, he said.

“You need to show up every day,” he added. “The young attorneys need to know who you are, and you need to know who they are. It can be something as simple as going to dockets every once in a while handling the sentencing for someone.

“But I wouldn’t feel right if I wasn’t making budget presentations, dealing with the county commission and hiring and firing people.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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