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.
"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.
Working in Beneby's favor are numerous documents in the court file that show his life has been full of strange, unprovoked attacks on people and animals and that the beginning of his path to crime can easily be marked: It was a fall onto a tile floor at the age of eight. According to medical records from the time, Beneby was seemingly a normal child until the day after Christmas in 1986, when he slipped backward in his family's home in the Bahamas and banged the back of his head. Until his fall Beneby was a good student, mature for his age, and in general a happy boy, according to court documents.
The fall initially caused him dizziness and blurred vision. The next day, according to medical reports from the time, he had chest pains and vomited "bright red blood." Then he began having fainting spells. And finally Beneby began suffering from sudden fits of uncontrolled violence.
After his fall Beneby "was literally acting like an animal," defense expert witness Lee Bukstel, a psychologist, wrote in his report to the court. "He would go days without sleeping and he had to be physically restrained from hurting his brothers and sisters. In fact, they had to tie him up to heavy stationary objects because he would attempt to be violent."
When these fits subsided, Beneby would come back to his senses and act almost normally, though quiet and extremely guarded. Beneby told Bukstel that he feels incapable of feeling emotion and doesn't truly care about anyone, though he wants to. As if that weren't enough, Beneby also said he has a history of hearing "spirits" in his head, which speak to him in Hebrew and Arabic.
While lawyers continue arguing over what should be done with him, Beneby himself doesn't seem to care so much. When deputies asked him if the prospect of dying in the electric chair bothered him, Beneby simply said: "It bother me, but that's the way it supposed to be."
Similar to many serial killers, Beneby first acted out his impulses to kill on pets. He once killed an entire litter of puppies at a neighbor's home in the Bahamas, according to court records. The court file includes letters from teachers and psychiatrists attesting to his sudden outbursts of violence against other students. After the outbursts, school counselors reported, Beneby would seem confused and couldn't explain why it had happened.
Another psychologist hired by the defense, Jorge Herrera, speculates in court papers that Beneby suffers from a rare disorder called "Episodic Discontrol System," brought on by damage to the left temporal lobe, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and reason. Sufferers with this disorder are "not aware of the consequences or nature of their actions" as there is an altered state of consciousness, Herrera wrote.
"He'll benefit from treatment and counseling and monitoring," says defense attorney Michaels. "If he's thrown into a state prison, he'll come out much worse."
The prosecutor, Cavanagh, doesn't dispute the fact that Beneby has mental problems, but he says he is convinced that Beneby formed the intent to kill and knew he was doing wrong. Cavanagh also says he's worried that Beneby, if freed, will kill again. And again.
"There is a concern that Beneby will become a serial killer if he ever walks out of jail," Cavanagh says. "The question is, is this kid a Frankenstein monster? He was a serial killer of animals in the Bahamas. Will he become a serial killer of humans if he's let go?"
Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address: Bob_Norman@newtimesbpb.com
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.