TAMPA — Michael Benito was a performer and juries were his audience.
With his loud voice and plume of curly red hair, the former homicide prosecutor for the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office was renowned for his courtroom theatrics and dramatic exchanges with the accused. Adversaries dubbed him “Boom Boom Benito” and “the samurai prosecutor,” the latter a reference to the time he thrust a machete toward the jury as he reenacted a murder.
Although he spent the bulk of his 42-year legal career handling criminal defense and personal injury cases, his work as a prosecutor in the 1980s made a lasting impression.
“Nobody tried a case like Mike Benito,” said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Denise Pomponio, who as a young prosecutor learned by memorizing every word of his legendary closing arguments.
Mr. Benito died last week. A cause of death was not publicly disclosed. He was 69.
He was born in 1952 and grew up in Tampa. He played baseball and was the homecoming king in 1970 at King High School.
Tampa attorney Scott Tozian remembers the red-haired kid who delivered mail when they were undergraduates at the University of South Florida. When both went on to law school at Florida State University, Tozian gravitated to Mr. Benito’s familiar face.
Amid the academic tension, Mr. Benito brought welcome comic relief.
There were the games of Battleship played in the midst of law classes.
There was the time he rolled a soda can down the aisle in a law school classroom, landing it at the feet of a long-winded professor.
There was the time when he hurled a bulky law book down a stairwell to impress his friend with the explosive noise. He didn’t know a librarian was about the enter the stairway just as the book hit the floor. She screamed. Mr. Benito was embarrassed, Tozian said.
At the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office, he was known for calling up young prosecutors, telling them the chief assistant state attorney — the designated disciplinarian — wanted to see them in his office right away. Other times he’d call up and launch into a joke about “a guy walks into a bar ...”
“He was a real jokester,” Tozian said.
Mr. Benito started as a prosecutor in 1978. Within a few years, he became one of the lead attorneys to handle homicides. He boasted more than 40 murder convictions. They included more than a dozen death sentences.
He prosecuted Bobby Joe Long, the serial killer who murdered at least eight women in Hillsborough County.
When Long was on trial in 1986 for the murder of Michelle Simms, the defendant grumbled to a judge that he didn’t have time to prepare a defense.
“How much time did you give Michelle Simms to prepare her defense?” Benito shot back.
In 1987, a mentally ill man on trial for murdering a hair dresser threatened to kill Benito “with his mind.”
“You can kill me? Right now? With your mind?” Benito asked him. “Why don’t you go ahead and do it?”
Reginald White, convicted of killing his girlfriend in a parking lot in 1989, took umbrage to the prosecutor calling him a “coward.” White said in a later prison interview that he’d like to “tear his butt off his frame.”
“Hmm. That sounds serious,” Benito said in response. “Listen, I’ll tell you. Gunning down a defenseless woman in cold blood — shooting her twice in the back — I would call that a cowardly act.”
Indeed, prisons were full of people who hated Mike Benito. But at the courthouse, he was loved and admired.
He was a fixture during lunch hours at the former Cafe Pepé on Kennedy Boulevard, and on Thursday nights with the courthouse crowd at CDB Pizza in downtown Tampa.
Young attorneys saw Mr. Benito as someone to emulate.
“As a baby lawyer at the time, I was like, ‘I want to be like that when I grow up,’” said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward, who started her career in the State Attorney’s Office.
Few could imitate his flamboyant style.
“He could pull it off,” said Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta. “Others couldn’t pull it off. If someone else did it, it came across as almost too theatrical and too over the top.”
While working in homicide, Mr. Benito would visit and chat with new attorneys, offering advice about the basics of litigation.
“He was eight years my senior, but he never made me feel that way,” said Tampa attorney Ronald Darrigo, a former prosecutor whose defense firm Mr. Benito joined in 2012. “This is a guy that was at top of his game and yet he always had time for the younger guy.”
Mr. Benito ran unsuccessfully for judge in 1990, touting his record of convictions with stiff sentences. Months later, he entered private practice with Daniel Fernandez, a fellow former prosecutor.
Some wondered if Mr. Benito could be as effective on the other side of the courtroom.
“He’s a one-trick pony,” one former public defender told the St. Petersburg Times that year. “But it’s a hell of a trick.”
Even on the defense side, though, Benito made his share of headlines.
He secured a dismissal in a manslaughter case, pressing a self-defense claim for a Temple Terrace bar owner who shot two men. Another client was an alleged member of the Mafia, who was one of several people ensnared on white-collar charges that were later dropped in what was known as the Key Bank case.
Still, the memories that stand out are those from his years as a prosecutor — the victims he helped, the justice he achieved.
“He did a tremendous amount for the people of Hillsborough County,” Fernandez said.
Michael Louis Benito
Born: Feb. 16, 1952
Died: April 8, 2021
Survivors: wife, Adriana; sons Zack and Eddie; daughters Courtney and Brianna; brother Joseph.
Services: The family held services Thursday.