In 2006, Ashley Benton was a 16-year-old high school student who had never had any experience with the police. On one fateful day, she made a bad choice. She went with a group of her friends, members of a gang called “Crazy Crew,” to an inner city park near her Houston home.
At the park, a brawl erupted between Crazy Crew and the notorious gang called “MS 13," known for its violence. That penchant for violence was apparent on that fateful day, when a gang member swung an aluminum baseball bat at her head, saying “Fuck you, bitch. I’m going to fuck you up.” Ashley responded by pulling out a knife she bought at a local store for $8.00 and stabbed Gabriel Granillo in the heart. He died.
Ashley lived and was charged with murder, with a possible punishment range of probation to life in prison. The prosecutors wanted to send a message to gang kids that they were going to be punished, and they labeled Ashley a “cold bloodied gang-banger," who deserved a life sentence.
To get that punishment, Ashley had to be certified by a juvenile court judge to stand trial as an adult. Her family hired an attorney and the legal proceedings began. She was ultimately certified as an adult and went through the year-long legal process in the adult criminal court in Harris County, Texas, noted for its tough stance on crime and criminal defendants - young or old, male or female. However, luckily for Ashley Benton, the first lawyer called out for legal help from a local lawyer named Brian Wice. Well-known in Houston for his expertise in the appellate process, Brian has been successful in setting aside verdicts and getting new trials for many clients. When Brian met his new client, he immediately believed her self-defense claim and that she didn't intend to kill Granillo.
In June 2007, after hearing all the evidence presented by both the State and the defense, the jury deliberated but failed to reach a unanimous decision, and the judge declared a mistrial. The State offered a plea bargain, which was rejected by Ashley. One can only imagine how hard it must have been for that young girl to reject a plea bargain and once again place her life in the hands of her lawyers and the Texas criminal justice system. The possibility of life in prison is terrifying and most of us would do anything to avoid that possibility. However, after a long negotiation process with the prosecutors, Brian and his defense team obtained a new offer from the prosecutors, and this time Ashley took it. Instead of murder, she pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and was placed on five-years deferred adjudication probation, with some stiff conditions.
At this point, there is nothing really unusual about the saga of Ashley Benton. Defendants are placed on probation often - not as likely on a charge of murder, but it does happen. What is unusual comes later. I know there are some of you who will ask, “What about the victim?” The bottom line here is that both Ashley and Gabriel Granillo placed themselves in that situation in that park on that terrible day. There is no doubt that, armed with the baseball bat, he threatened Ashley. Some members of the jury in June 2007 believed he threatened her with her life. Granillo took a risk; he lost. That's the way the events played out. And the end of this story is that Ashley Benton is getting a rare second chance.
After two years, Brian Wice filed a motion to terminate Ashley's probation early. By then, Ashley Benton had done all the requirements her judge ordered. She'd worked three jobs at one time in order to raise the money to reimburse the victim’s family for the funeral expenses, and performed thousands of hours of community service, with no assistance from anyone. Why? Ashley was determined to show the court, her lawyers, and the prosecutor that she was going to make something of her life. She wanted the opportunity to continue her education away from Houston, and to work and support herself without having the probation on her record, a stigma which prevents many from obtaining decent paying jobs. Ashley Benton wanted to reclaim her life.
After a hearing in court last week, the judge agreed.
Now this is the exceptional part: the hard line prosecutor didn't object. In fact, after the judge ruled, Ashley turned and hugged the prosecutor - that was the photograph in the Houston newspaper the following morning. It certainly got my attention. I've never had a client, even after a favorable ruling, turn and hug the person who tried to convince a jury to send her to prison for the rest of her life. That one photograph told a great story: a story that said that there are prosecutors who realize justice doesn't always mean prison. Justice can mean giving an accused citizen a second chance.
I know there are some of you who will ask, “What about the victim?” The bottom line here is that both Ashley and Gabriel Granillo placed themselves in that situation in that park on that terrible day. There is no doubt that, armed with the baseball bat, he threatened Ashley. Some members of the jury in June 2007 believed he threatened her with her life. Granillo took a risk; he lost. That's the way the events played out. And the end of this story is that Ashley Benton is getting a rare second chance.