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

07/14/2012 5:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:11 AM

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.”

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