Psycho Killer

Is Feliciano Valentino Beneby a cold-blooded murderer, the victim of a rare mental disorder, or both?

The defense attorney wants to put the young man in a mental institution. The prosecutor wants to put him in prison for life. The court is trying to determine if he's mentally competent to stand trial. Psychologists are delving into his mind, trying to figure out what triggered his murderous act.

And Feliciano Valentino Beneby just turned 21 years old in the Broward County jail as the question continues to loom after more than three years: What should be done with this young killer?

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are in no rush to answer that question in court -- Beneby's trial date for his first-degree murder charge was recently moved to June. "We're in no hurry here," says Alexander Michaels, Beneby's lawyer, showing a flair for the obvious. "I don't think anybody is in any hurry in this case."

It's a complicated case history with a complicated killer. The Bahamian-born Beneby was 17 years old when he shot a fellow Hollywood Hills High School student point-blank in the back of the head for no apparent reason while skipping class on February 8, 1996. Beneby suddenly shot his friend, 18-year-old Walter James, because he got an "urge" to do it, he told deputies, and because he'd wondered what it might be like to kill another human being.

The central issue of the trial will be not whether Beneby murdered James but whether he knew right from wrong when he pulled the trigger of a chrome pistol, causing a .38-caliber bullet to lodge in James' brain. While the issues are standard ones in insanity defenses, the veteran prosecutor for the case, Brian Cavanagh, says he's never before seen a killer like Beneby, who, as a result of the murder and his past history, is forcing Broward's justice system to examine his twisted, dark mind.

Cavanagh calls Beneby a "Frankenstein monster" and a scourge to society, perhaps because of unfortunate circumstances beyond the boy's control. But Cavanagh stresses that Beneby is a monster all the same and should be locked up for life because of it.

Beneby, the son of a police officer, certainly should have known right from wrong. He's no dunce -- tests show he's of average intelligence. Doctors have found something in him far more chilling than simple stupidity; they've found a disconnection of his brain from the violence that erupts from him, an altered state of consciousness in which Beneby knows not what he does. It may sound like a desperate attempt to keep Beneby out of prison, but a number of medical records and school reports indicate it's at least partially true, as does the crime itself.

Beneby told detectives he met James and fellow student Craig Gardner, and they all decided to skip class at Hollywood Hills. James, according to Beneby, had a pistol with him and wanted to stash it somewhere. Beneby suggested hiding the gun in some bushes near a warehouse off Stirling Road. James drove them there in his mother's brown Chevy, while Gardner sat in the passenger seat, and Beneby, holding the gun, sat behind James. It was during the drive, Beneby later told Broward sheriff's detectives, that he got one of his "urges" to kill.

As James drove behind the warehouse with the radio blaring, Gardner looked out the window, wondering where Beneby was taking them. Then came a loud pop and Gardner turned to see James slumped forward onto the steering wheel. With James dead, Beneby planned to shoot Gardner to eliminate his witness, but the gun jammed.

After the murder Beneby got out of the car and hustled away. Gardner, confused, ran to him and repeatedly screamed, "Why?" until Gardner became afraid and ran the other way.

Beneby kept going until he got to a sheriff's substation on Dania Beach Boulevard, where he calmly told a detective: "I just killed a dude behind the warehouse. I shot him in the back of the head." That detective, Richard Tarrant, put Beneby in the back of a patrol car, and as Beneby led him to the body, a call came on the sheriff's radio about the shooting. "I told you so," Beneby told Tarrant. When they came upon the scene, it was noted by deputies that the Chevy's radio was still blaring, the engine was running, and James, with an almost bloodless hole in the back of his head, still had his hands on the steering wheel. The car was in drive, with James' foot on the brake keeping it from moving.

Later, detectives asked Beneby if he'd ever had such "urges" before.
"Lots of times," Beneby told them.
"When?"

"There isn't any special time. Ain't nothing I can think of that trigger it. I just got a feeling."

"Just something that you would think about?"
"I ain't even really think about it. It's just something that comes up in me."

Beneby told deputies he knew that the consequences of killing somebody was death in the electric chair, an indication to detectives that he knew right from wrong. Other facts the prosecution will use to try and prove Beneby consciously intended to kill and knew it was wrong include Beneby's admission that he'd wanted to shoot Gardner, and that he'd guided James to a secluded spot before the murder.

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