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Woman represents herself in grand theft trial

The defendant was thirsty, so everything stopped.

Circuit Judge Mary Handsel got up from her chair and disappeared through a door. She came back cradling an armful of water bottles and asked a bailiff to hand one to the woman in the striped pants suit.

With that taken care of, she addressed Elizabeth Benedetto.

"Right before we do pretty much anything," she said, "I have to ask you again whether you want to represent yourself."

That question would be asked many more times.

Benedetto, 54, was about to pick a jury in her own felony grand theft trial. She stood accused of stealing between $20,000 and $100,000 from her deceased aunt's estate.

There were supposed to be four beneficiaries, with Benedetto as the executor. But she took all the money and put it in a personal bank account, prosecutors said, and then wrote checks to herself. She moved to New Jersey. She was arrested and extradited in 2010.

When her trial was set to begin last week, Benedetto had been in jail for almost 1,000 days. Part of the reason things took so long was because, at first, she refused to speak. Doctors were called and competency hearings happened until finally, a trial.

Public defender and stand-by counsel Catherine Garrett sat behind her in the gallery. She leaned forward and offered Benedetto a list of objections she could use.

"This is my personal copy," Garrett said. "You can borrow it."

"I can only do one thing at a time," Benedetto said.

Assistant State Attorney Scott Andringa tried to keep proper courtroom decorum, despite the fact that Benedetto repeatedly referred to him as "Mr. Andringo" throughout the trial.

While Andringa talked to potential jurors, Benedetto occasionally took off her red framed reading glasses and chewed on the earpiece.

Then it was her turn to address the panel.

"Hello, everyone, my name is Elizabeth Benedetto, and unfortunately I'm the defendant in this case," she said.

"Is there anybody here who doesn't know the difference between a civil matter and a criminal matter?"

No one spoke.

"Anyone who here who said previously they were involved in a will dispute?"

No one spoke.

"Can anybody answer that?"

Judge Handsel told her to ask each person individually.

"Am I allowed to ask whether there are safeguards about a will?"

"Mrs. Benedetto," the judge said, "you are not allowed to ask if you're allowed to do something."

Andringa dropped his head in his hands.

• • •

Benedetto's opening statement amounted to this: She could not believe what was happening to her.

"I want to reiterate it's just beyond comprehension how this became a criminal matter when there's a dispute in a family estate."

"You're going hear a lot of things that are simply either not true or mischaracterizations," she said.

"I'm a key witness and I've been silenced one way or another, but I'm here today and I've waited for this day to begin."

"Judge," Andringa said, "she's testifying."

• • •

During her cross examination of a probate lawyer, Benedetto asked if it was unusual for a will to be filed after a person's death.

It was not, the lawyer said.

She asked if it was unusual for money to be left to four people, two of whom were not heirs.

The lawyer said it was not.

Andringa objected again after Benedetto spoke.

"The witness is testifying," he said.

On the second day of the trial, Benedetto tried to enter evidence while cross-examining a witness, but was told it had to be done a certain way.

Handsel used the moment to explain — again — why having a lawyer was a good idea.

Benedetto's voice cracked, and she cleared her throat. She pushed on.

She got through the cross-examination and sat down. She leaned back.

"I may need you to represent me," she told Garrett, who nodded.

They took an extra long lunch break to come up with a strategy.

• • •

After lunch, the defense offered a plea. Lawyers moved in and out of the courtroom, trying to sort the details. How much restitution should she pay? What about investigative costs? What does she still owe in the civil matter?

For a moment, it seemed over.

There were conversations back and forth between lawyers and the judge and the executor of the estate to hammer out a last-minute deal.

At the last minute, Benedetto rejected the plea deal over $3,000 in prosecution costs.

The trial went on, now with Garrett running the defense, and Benedetto chose not to testify after the state rested its case.

In his closing argument, Andringa made a pie chart.

"The issue is she intended to take this money knowing it was not hers," he said, "and she spent the money on herself."

Garrett brought out a whiteboard and made a chart of her own.

"This case is an iceberg and most of it is underwater," Garrett said. "It's confusing."

She told the jury to think about what "beyond a reasonable doubt" means.

"This is a woman that just wanted to take care of her family," Garrett said.

The jury of four women and two men took less than two hours to find Benedetto guilty as charged. Handsel gave her a sentence roughly equivalent to what she would have given in the plea deal: probation for seven years, an order to pay back at least $25,000, and a mandate that she not serve as a representative for an estate ever again.

Benedetto was taken back into custody. She is still in jail on the civil matter.

She was fingerprinted, and while she rubbed the ink off her hands she told Garrett, "Thank you very much," and was led away.

About this series

Court Record is an occasional series about everyday interactions inside Pasco courtrooms. If you have a court story you think might be good for this series, contact Jon Silman at jsilman@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6229. @Jonsilman1 on Twitter.

Woman represents herself in grand theft trial 08/06/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 6, 2013 8:17pm]

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