Monday, October 10, 2011
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Benz and Harris brothers cases granted continuances to December

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[October 10, 2011]  Thursday afternoon former Lincoln Community High School teacher Douglas Benz appeared before Judge Thomas Harris in Logan County Circuit Court.

HardwareBenz is being charged with multiple counts of criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse. He was arrested by Lincoln police on March 22 in a hotel in Springfield.

Benz allegedly was involved in acts of misconduct with a minor student at Lincoln Community High School, where he was an English teacher, freshman football coach and assistant coach for track and field and wrestling.

The Thursday appearance was on the docket as a pretrial hearing, with the trial to begin the week after next.

When the judge asked if the attorneys had anything to discuss, Benz's attorney, James Elmore, asked for a continuance until December. He said discovery was still under way in the case. With no objections from Assistant State's Attorney Jonathan Wright, Harris scheduled a status hearing according to Elmore's request.

On Friday morning the judge was back in the courtroom to hear from prosecution and defense attorneys in regard to the cases against brothers Christopher and Jason Harris.

The Harris brothers were arrested in October of 2009 following the brutal deaths of five members of the Raymond Gee family of Beason.

Both brothers face a long line of charges in relation to the murders, including multiple counts of first-degree murder, criminal sexual assault, home invasion and robbery.

The two are being tried separately.

Jason Harris was the first to appear before Judge Harris Friday afternoon. He was represented by attorney Steven Skelton, as appointed by the court.

Jason Harris is currently being held without bond in the McLean County Jail.

Christopher Harris was the second to appear before Judge Harris and was represented by his appointed public defenders, James Elmore and John Rogers.

Christopher Harris is also being held without bond in Logan County.

Much of what was said in the courtroom in the first hearing was repeated in the second.

Judge Harris began by following up on orders he had issued at the last hearing, in June. At that time, he had learned that attorneys were still awaiting forensic results from the Illinois State Police crime lab. He issued a deadline of Sept.1 for all evidence to be processed and reports issued to the attorneys in the two cases.

He asked if this requirement had been met and was assured by Skelton and Elmore respectively that they had the reports.

Skelton noted in his answer that he has not had sufficient time to review all the reports issued, saying he was about one-third of the way through them.

Skelton also mentioned the enormity of the case, saying there are more than 11,000 pages of discovery and over 200 interviews that have to be conducted.

In both hearings Judge Harris then addressed changes on a state level that are going to have an effect on the eventual trials of the two brothers.

He noted that since the last status hearing in June, the state of Illinois has abolished the death penalty. He said this would influence the procedures to be followed in the two cases and would also affect funding, specifically in payments for the public defenders and expert witnesses.

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During the hearing for Christopher Harris, Rogers said the changes in the death penalty had little effect on how the attorneys would prepare for the trials ahead, but the big question was whether the defendants would have attorneys.

When the death penalty was abolished in July, it also did away with the state's Capital Litigation Trust Fund. These are the dollars that pay for public defenders, as well as other expenses such as fees to expert witnesses.

Rogers said he couldn't say whether or not he would be able to continue as Christopher Harris' attorney, due to the funding issue. He also noted that without doubt, "experts won't work with or for us until they know they are going to be paid."

Judge Harris also weighed in on the situation, saying it was leaving the court in limbo.

Harris directed the attorneys for both defenses as well as the state to continue moving forward in their work.

He acknowledged the massive amount of evidence that has to be reviewed and advised the attorneys to meet outside the courtroom and devise a means of streamlining the discovery process.

He noted the court-appointed defenders do their work in addition to their own private practices and caseloads, and he acknowledged they are working at full capacity to accomplish all they have to do.

During the hearing the prosecution was represented by Illinois Assistant Attorney General Michael Atterberry with Logan County Assistant State's Attorney Jonathan Wright.

Atterberry told Judge Harris there was a meeting planned in Springfield with all the attorneys, where they would work to streamline the discovery process.

In both cases, Judge Harris ruled for a continuance, with a case management hearing for each defendant scheduled for Dec. 16 at 11 a.m.


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