Murder Victim Nicole Bennett's Family Still Fighting for Justice - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Murder Victim Nicole Bennett's Family Still Fighting for Justice Even After Sentencing

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Nicole Bennett, raped and murdered in June 2012. Nicole Bennett, raped and murdered in June 2012.

By Steve Hammond

MILLSBORO, Del.- Many pictures and memories reflect happier times for the family of Nicole Bennett.

"She was amazing. She was great with little kids. Her smile could light up a room," said Lauren Bennett, Nicole's eldest daughter. 

But sadly, Nicole's smile is missing from family gatherings today. 

"She was kind-hearted, loving, caring," said Kevin Bennett, Nicole's husband. 

Thirty-five-year old Nicole died way too young. The Millsboro woman and mother of three was raped and murdered nearly five years ago. More on that shortly.

The family Nicole left behind included her husband Kevin and their daughters: Lauren, who's now 16; Emily, who's about to turn 13; and Allie, who's just 6. Kevin's parents, Bob and Mary Bennett, live close by and play key supportive roles. Nicole's parents live in Nebraska. A lot of people have stepped up and rallied around the family.

"It makes a huge difference," Kevin said. "Family being here, friends, and really the whole community has been great. People bring meals over, calling to ask if they can help out. It makes a difference, you know."

But day in and day out, Kevin is a busy man.

"Laundry, dishes, I've had to learn a lot in these past few years," he said. When asked about his cooking skills, Kevin replied, "No, I'm not gonna lie. I'm an OK cook, still learning."

Kevin and the rest of his family are still learning and coping, not only with Nicole's horrific murder, but with a criminal justice system that they say let them down. 

"The punishment definitely didn't fit the crime," Kevin said. "[We're] very disappointed."

Earlier this month, 33-year-old Matthew Burton entered a plea deal in which he admitted to raping and murdering Nicole Bennett. Burton was a convicted child sex offender working as a maintenance worker at the church where Nicole was a day care provider. Her body was found along a dirt road in Worcester County, Md. 

The crimes occurred in June 2012 but the case dragged on for years. There were legal battles over which state had jurisdiction. In the end it became Delaware's case. However, there were big problems with the evidence. Much of it was ruled inadmissible because of what the attorney general's office called fatal flaws with the search warrants in both Maryland and Delaware. That evidence included a mask, rope, gloves and hair samples found in Burton's truck, all inadmissible. 

In the meantime, the Bennett family settled a lawsuit with Bayshore Community Church that it was negligent in hiring and supervising a convicted sex offender. But the family still wanted justice for Nicole.

Then in early April, Kevin got a phone call. A plea deal had been struck. The next day Burton would appear in Sussex County Superior Court in Georgetown where he pleaded guilty to second-degree rape and murder and sentenced to a total of 30 years. But with time already served, Burton will be out of prison in 25 years for rape and murder.

"When they called us to let us know the day before it happened, I told them, my exact words were, 'This is unacceptable,'" Kevin said. "It was pretty much out of our hands though he basically was calling to tell us, it's gonna happen tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. The plea will happen and we really didn't have a say in it."

There was no time for Nicole's parents in Nebraska to make it to Georgetown the next day. 

WBOC asked the Delaware Attorney General's Office why it was so rushed and why the Bennett's were given no say in the decision. The AG's Office responded, "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...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..."

Nicole's father-in-law, Bob Bennett, said, "Ironically...when I was in the courtroom they had him put his hand on the Bible. They had him swear before God to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But the same god and the same bible says an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It says if you take a life, you lose your life. We weren't so much pushing for the death penalty as we were that he never get out of jail. I'm thankful that our faith is in God and not in our system. The system has let us down."

Commenting more on why the plea deal was reached, the Attorney General's Office said, "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."

For now, there's hope that federal prosecutors will get involved and re-try the case because it crossed state lines.

Nicole's family says it will continue to fight for justice and hang on to those favorite moments or memories of her.

"When we used to play softball right outside the condo where we used to live," Nicole's daughter Emily recalled fondly.

Lauren Bennett, Nicole's eldest daughter said, "I don't have a favorite memory. They're all so good, every moment I got to spend with her."

And Kevin Bennett said of his wife, "If I had to pick one thing about her, it'd be hard....her smile."  

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