MILLSBORO, Del. - In the first sit-down interview with Nicole Bennett's family since her killer's April 5th "Change of Plea" hearing in Georgetown, Nicole's father-in-law, Bob Bennett, admits they are still infuriated with the outcome of this case, "I think, like the rest of the family, that I put my faith in God and not in the system. Because the system has let us down."
It's been two weeks since Matthew Burton of Dagsboro pleaded guilty to Murder in the Second Degree and Rape in the Second Degree for killing Nicole.
Although the judge sentenced him to the max of 40 years in prison for the murder charge and 25 years for the rape charge, 35 of those years were suspended. Which means, after subtracting years Burton already served and the possibility of early release, he is looking at just over two decades behind bars.
"Even a thief sometimes gets 20 to 25 years," exclaimed Bob Bennett. "And here is a sex offender previously, who has done the same to my daughter-in-law, taking her away from three kids. Unheard of. And this is called justice?"
"Justice," added Kevin Bennett, Nicole's husband. "I mean, when I think of justice, I think of an eye for an eye...a tooth for a tooth. What happened certainly doesn't fit the crime...just disappointed."
16 year-old Lauren Bennett, Nicole's oldest daughter. lost her mom when she was 11.
She prepared the following words which she read to us off her tablet.
"I am really mad and upset about the amount of years that the guy that killed my mom got. He not only took my mom's life but he ruined mine and my family's. And has done bad stuff to other people, too.
"He does not deserve to be let go in about 25 years, and knowing he will be out and could hurt other people scares me.
"I really don't like how he doesn't want forgiveness. He didn't even want to admit that he was guilty until he could get something out of it.
"Also I don't like how he is in the jail that is right by my school, and I have to ride past it twice on a school day. I wish they would move him to a jail that would be harder on him because he does not deserve what he is getting right now for what he has done."
47 ABC reached out to the Attorney General's office about how they came to resolution the did in Burton's case. They sent us the following statement:
The Department of Justice has always extended its sympathy to the family and friends of Nicole Bennett and has a profound understanding of their grief at their loss. A group of the state's most senior prosecutors carefully reviewed all the evidence 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. The challenges in this case included:
- 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 trial issues, 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 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.
The Bennett's aren't contradicting the fact that the state prosecutor, David Hume, informed them about changes in the case and hearings, but Kevin tells 47 ABC that they do feel more could have been done, "Basically, I just told David, 'this is unacceptable.'"
In Delaware -- the Victims' Bill of Rights mandates that victims are informed about the criminal process and extends notification and participation rights to them.
However Bob tells 47 ABC, "We were kept in the dark about a lot of things near the end."
We spoke to Nicole's mother, Margaret Reiser, over the phone. She and Nicole's father, Steve Reiser, live in Nebraska. And she has similar concerns, especially about how she was informed that a plea deal was reached.
She feels she was not given enough time to digest this information, let alone schedule a flight to be in Georgetown for the change of plea hearing in Sussex County Court.
She claims she first heard about the possibility of a plea deal on Tuesday, April 4th, the night before the plea hearing.
"We had no idea it was going to take place the next day," admitted Margaret. "We were not told that."
"My sister was definitely looking into coming," adds Kevin. "She couldn't get a flight. She tried at the last second. Steve and Margaret...nobody really had a chance to make decision. You know, it was too late."
When 47 ABC reached out to Attorney General Matt Denn and the prosecutor on Burton's case, David Hume, for an interview, Delaware Department of Justice spokesperson, Carl Kanefsky, sent us this response, "DOJ has provided a detailed written statement in order to clearly answer the questions asked about the reason for the resolution of the case."
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