Delaware DOJ Responds to WBOC's Questions About Nicole Bennett M - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Delaware DOJ Responds to WBOC's Questions About Nicole Bennett Murder Case

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Nicole Bennett, a volunteer daycare leader at Bay Shore Community Church near Gumboro, was raped and murdered in June 2012. Her body was found on a dirty road in Worcester County, Md. She was 35. Nicole Bennett, a volunteer daycare leader at Bay Shore Community Church near Gumboro, was raped and murdered in June 2012. Her body was found on a dirty road in Worcester County, Md. She was 35.
Matthew Burton, pleaded guilty in early April to second-degree rape and murder of Nicole Bennett of Millsboro. Matthew Burton, pleaded guilty in early April to second-degree rape and murder of Nicole Bennett of Millsboro.

The Delaware Department of Justice responds to WBOC's questions about the Nicole Bennett murder case, in which in early April, 33-year-old Matthew Burton pleaded guilty to in Sussex County Superior Court:

First, let us say that the Delaware Department of Justice has always extended its sympathy to the family and friends of Nicole Bennett and understands they are deeply grieving. A group of the state's most senior prosecutors carefully reviewed all the evidence in this case and determined that, if the case went to trial, there was a very good chance that Matthew Burton would be acquitted by a jury and walk out of court a free man.  Given that very real possibility, prosecutors concluded that a guilty plea to second degree rape and murder and a 30-year jail sentence would ensure that Burton was held accountable for his crimes. To answer your specific questions:

What were the official terms of the deal...charges Burton pleaded guilty to and sentence for each? Credit for time served? What will be the minimum/maximum he could spend behind bars for rape and murder?

Burton pled guilty to one count of Murder Second Degree and one count of Rape Second Degree. He was sentenced as follows:

- For Murder Second Degree, Burton was sentenced to 40 years in prison with credit for 4 years and 9 months. After serving 15 years and successful completion of the Transitions Sex Offender Program, the balance of the sentence is suspended for 10 years of Level III (intensive supervision) probation.

- For Rape Second Degree, Burton was sentenced to 25 years in prison. After serving 15 years, the balance of the sentence is suspended for 10 years of Level III (intensive supervision) probation (served concurrently).

As a result, Burton was sentenced to 30 years in prison, including time served, followed by 10 years of probation.

What was the official charge and sentence on the original sex offense? How old was the victim in that case and when did the crime occur?

Burton was charged with 5 counts of Rape Second Degree, 7 counts of Unlawful Sexual Contact Second Degree, Indecent Exposure, and Continuous Sexual Abuse of a Child for crimes that occurred betweenSeptember 2003 andJanuary 2004.  Burton pled guilty to 2 counts of Endangering the Welfare of a Child (misdemeanor) with a total of 2 years in jail suspended for 2 years of Level 3 intensive probation.  He was required to attend sexual disorders counseling and have no contact with the victims.  DOJ required registration as a sex offender as part of the plea, and later successfully maintained the condition when Burton asked the Court to invalidate it. The victims were juveniles. 

Why such a light sentence for a convicted sex offender who admitted to rape and murder?

Burton did not admit to rape or murder of Nicole Bennett prior to entry of his guilty plea.  The resolution and sentence in this case was driven by an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence that could be presented at trial. Some of the issues related to evidence in this case include:

  • There is no physical evidence that the crime took place in Delaware.  In fact, this case was initially prosecuted in Maryland where Nicole Bennett was found.  Investigative forensic analysis at Bayshore Community Church, including an analysis of carpet and chair fibers, did not uncover evidence of a crime in Delaware.
  • An inmate housed with Burton and serving his own sentence claimed that Burton confided in him that the murder took place at the Bayshore Community Church.  It was this information that supported the prosecution in Delaware. Nevertheless, some details given by the inmate were inconsistent with what was known about the life of Nicole Bennett. As a witness in a trial, the inmate’s criminal history and inconsistencies in the story would have been subject to cross-examination and, ultimately, weighed heavily in an assessment of credibility.
  • There was risk that a jury could conclude that Burton did murder Nicole Bennett, but did not do so in Delaware, and therefore a Delaware court could not find him guilty.
  • Evidence of tire impressions and mud suggesting Burton’s truck was at the scene where Nicole Bennett was found were ruled inadmissible by the court based on the way the evidence was collected.
  • Text messages from Burton were also likely to not be admitted at trial based on the way they were collected.
  • There was DNA analysis conducted by the Maryland State Police Forensic Sciences Division that police and prosecutors believe linked Burton to the rape and murder. But the forensic chemist who conducted the analysis had a previous incident in Maryland where the chemist had contaminated a sample and the chemist had other previous job performance issues. The Delaware court ruled that the defense would be able to use these contamination and performance issues to cross-examine the chemist at trial, which would have undermined the DNA analysis, and any weight to be assigned to the evidence.

Given these issues that would be faced at trial, the real possibility that Nicole’s killer could go free was unacceptable. Prosecutors advised the Bennett family of these issues throughout the case, including in conversations the day before the plea.  Ultimately it was the prosecutors’ conclusion and decision that the certainty of a guilty plea and a sentence of 30 years in prison was preferable to the substantial risk Burton would not be convicted at trial.

What was the evidence that was ruled inadmissible and why? Was that evidence tainted? If so, how?

The judge ruled that all evidence recovered from the Defendant’s truck was suppressed due to fatal flaws in the Delaware and Maryland search warrants.  This evidence included tire impressions, soil samples, and a mask, rope, and gloves found inside the truck.  It would also have included any hairs or fibers found in the truck, which had been analyzed at the request of DOJ and could not be linked to Nicole Bennett. Prosecutors determined that Burton’s text messages were obtained by law enforcement officers without a search warrant and that they lacked an exigent basis to do so.  Those text messages would be inadmissible.  Other evidentiary rulings that were likely to impact DOJ’s ability to prosecute the case were still pending at the time of the plea.  The judge mentioned these evidentiary issues at the time of the plea and sentencing. 

Why was the Bennett family not allowed to approve or reject this deal? Is that SOP?

The Bennett family was informed of the contemplated resolution in this case and were kept informed of the evidentiary difficulties and issues throughout the case, to the extent that prosecutors were legally able.  We take very seriously the views of victims' families when assessing a case resolution.  

Prosecutors in MD have said the physical evidence in this case was solid, and that a conviction was likely. What changed in DE?

DOJ prosecutors worked diligently to acquire and then review all available evidence, but as indicated, significant physical evidence was ruled inadmissible. Prosecutors had to make an assessment of the evidence that was still available once defense motions to suppress and question evidence and witnesses were determined by the judge, not based on what came with the case from Maryland.

Why was the formal plea and sentencing so rushed. They were given less than 24 hours notice...not enough time for Nicole Bennett's family in Nebraska and Tennessee to arrange to be in Georgetown? Is that also SOP?

It is regrettable the time frame did not allow the family to be present for sentencing, but the timing was part of guaranteeing that the defendant would plead guilty and thus be held accountable for what he did to Nicole Bennett and serve a substantial sentence behind bars, rather than go free following a trial with significant evidentiary issues.  

Did the judge have the power to "overrule" this deal and give Burton a longer sentence.  If so, why did he not do that?

A judge ultimately determines the sentence, but ?in cases where the prosecution and defense have engaged in extensive litigation and have proposed a resolution, the Court is more inclined to accept the proposed resolution.  The judge was aware of the litigated and pending evidentiary issues of the case when he agreed to the sentence.

Does this sentence set a precedent for similar Delaware cases in the future?

Each case is assessed on its own facts. The problematic evidentiary issues involved in this case are unique to it.  ?

Will the Attorney General's Office agree that the punishment does not fit the crime? 

?Decades of incarceration as opposed to the real possibility of acquittal at trial, we believe, is an appropriate outcome.  One cannot assess the resolution of the case without considering what would have happened at trial given the evidentiary issues.    

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