A jury found Franklin Elliott Benson guilty of murder Saturday evening and Judge Horace J. Johnson, Jr. sentenced the 49-year-old to life plus 11 years, as family members of both Benson, and the victim, cried.
Benson, who was charged with murder, concealing the death of another and removal of body parts from scene of death or dismemberment in the death of Leslyan Williams, took the stand in his own defense Friday afternoon, clearing up many inconsistencies that jurors had heard throughout the prosecutions case.
As Benson testified, Williams' son Charles was visibly upset, rocking slowly in his seat and looking angrily at Benson, pain evident on his face.
Benson explained to the jury that Williams wasn't looking for a job because she had one in the drug business. According to his testimony, she would take pre-packaged amounts of cocaine and drop them at pre-determined locations. She worked with a girl named Shondra who Benson said was the last person he saw her with.
"She doesn't seem like the type to be involved with drugs," said defense attorney Leah Madden.
"She told me that was the reason she was asked to be involved," he said. "Because she would be beyond suspicion."He said the reason that there had been so many inconsistencies in his statements to investigators was because he lied out of fear and self-preservation. According to his testimony, Williams had said that she as going to go to the casino and to Michigan to see her family. He said he was unsure when she initially left the house on Oct. 29, but she shook him awake around 5 a.m., asking for his keys. She told him her car was on Memorial Drive with a flat tire and that she needed to use his car to make some drug deliveries. Shondra had driven her to her home. When Benson refused to loan her his car she insisted he get up and come fix her tire. He testified that she seemed frantic at the time.
While he was fixing her tire, she told him that she was on a tight schedule and asked him to drive her car to a pre-determined location in Tennessee, when he declined she asked him to hook her car up to the dolly on the back of his vehicle and tow it. He finally agreed to do so and Shondra was to take Williams to pick it up later on. When he told her that he needed directions, she said she would call him with them and when he told her that in his rush to fix her car he had forgotten his phone, she gave him hers and said that she would get his from the house. He was instructed to park the car at the specified location with the back door unlocked and the keys under the floor mat.
Benson told jurors that he did as Williams asked, then came straight back to Georgia, stopped by Williams home and left her phone and picked up his and went to work. He said that he didn't tell anyone where he had been because he didn't want to be implicated in any nefarious goings on. He said that he called her several times and left messages for her but never heard back from her though her phone was gone when he next went to her home. Scared that she had been arrested and he would get in trouble he called his sister Jennifer and moved his things from Williams home.
"Why didn't you report her missing?" asked Madden.
"I don't know," answered Benson. "I should have called..."
"I lied about everything I did that morning," Benson said. "I didn't even know anything had happened at that time. I was scared and I told them [investigators] anything I could think to tell them."
When questioned about why he seemed so sure the body parts found in Newton County belonged to Williams, he told the jury that "fear gripped me" and that he had "a sinking feeling." He said that he lied to anyone who talked to him about the hours between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. on Oct. 29, but kept up the story about Tennessee, trying to drop hints that investigators should focus their efforts there.
Why should the jury believe you now," asked Madden.
"This is very important," Benson said. "I told them what I told them to keep them from jumping on me about drugs."
"Did you murder her?" asked Madden
"No, no, no," answered Benson.
"Did you have anything to do with her disappearance?" she asked.
"I most definitely did not," he said.
"Did you chop up her body into parts?" Madden asked.
"No I did not," said Benson. "I cared about her. She did a lot of stuff for me and I would never hurt her. I would not."
When asked about her body ending up in such a remote location, he said that he believed the person who dumped it there knew the area but said that she had shown the glass house to prospective buyers at one time as well so there were multiple people who were aware of that location and that the home was vacant.
"Why don't you tell us what you did with her head," questioned Zon.
"You've got all these resources. If anyone would have found it [Williams head and torso] you would have," answered Benson.
Saturday morning the defense presented their closing arguments.
"They cannot tell you how she died," said Madden, "they cannot tell you where she was killed, they cannot tell you where she was dismembered and they cannot give you a crime scene," she said. "We’re not trying to disparage her," she said of Williams. "But we have a man here fighting for his life."
Madden went through several of the state’s witnesses, questioning memory of events and diligence of testing all evidence, including tire impressions found at the crime scene that were photographed but never attempted to be matched against Benson’s.
"He lied about a lot of stuff," she said of Benson. "Should he have been honest? Yes… You don’t have to like Mr. Benson… But just because you may not like him doesn’t make him guilty of murder… A lie does not a murderer make, ladies and gentlemen," she continued. "You may not like him, you may not want to be his friend but that does not give you the authorization to find him guilty."
Chief Assistant District Attorney Layla Zon next addressed the jury, telling them the entire investigation had centered on a search for the truth.
"This family wants closure," she said, motioning to Williams’s family members and friends who had been in the courtroom throughout the trial. "This family wants to know who killed their daughter, their sister and Charles’ mother. All the evidence in this case points to Franklin Elliott Benson. The man who reduced a beautiful woman — both inside and out — to 35 lbs. of remains found in the woods."
Zon told jurors that Benson was not only a Casanova with the ladies, but that he was smart and good at "selling his game." She also said that the person who killed and dismembered Williams was a sociopath.
"He’s not just a liar," she said of Benson, "he’s a pathological liar and has a pattern of being an arrogant narcissist."
She also told jurors that the secret of how Williams died would be carried to Benson to his grave.
"They’ll never have the peace to know what her last moments were like," she said of Williams’ family. "They’ll never know where the rest of her [body] is and that will torment them the rest of their lives."
The jury was released to deliberate at around 12 p.m. and by approximately 4:45 p.m. they returned with their verdict. As Zon read the word guilty, Janice Stewart, Williams’ best friend, lowered her head and began to cry as did several members of her family. Benson’s family was quiet and appeared unsurprised with the verdict.
"He took something precious from us," said one of Williams’ brothers who elected to speak following the verdict. Added her sister Angela "I am so glad he will never be able to do something like this to a woman again," adding that she had to forgive him to move on, even though she didn’t want to. As Johnson delivered the sentence, Benson’s sister Jennifer caught her breath and began to cry as did other members of his family.
As Leslyan Williams’ family began to make their way out of the courtroom they each made a point to stop and hug the attorneys and GBI agents that had worked on her case.
"I am pleased for the family," said Zon. "This has been a long process for them, many of them traveled a long way to be here for the trial, but I think they needed some closure."
Williams’ only son, Charles, was pleased with the verdict and the sentence.
"On behalf of my entire family I want to say thank you to Newton County. We believe that finally justice has truly been served."