Franklin Elliott Benson took the stand Friday afternoon to defend himself against charges that he murdered Leslyan Williams nearly two years ago, and the inconsistencies jurors had been hearing throughout the prosecutions case were explained away by Benson who admitted to lying to anyone who asked about his whereabouts on Oct. 29, 2007.
But before Benson took the stand, the state had to finish its case which began Tuesday morning. Chief Assistant District Attorney Layla Zon first called one of Benson's ex-wives who told jurors that on Nov. 4 the two attended a Atlanta Falcons game and while together he had repeatedly asked her if she had heard from his sister Cassandra and if she would call her.
Denise Williams, Leslyan's sister told jurors that Williams always liked to help people and was a caregiver, her last job had been taking care of a quadriplegic girl. Denise also said that Williams had spoken to her about Benson before.
“She used to tell me all the time that he was a keeper and that he was the one,” she said. “She loved him and she thought he loved her.”
She said that Williams had been trying to remodel her basement because she was going to use it as the site of a business she was trying to get established that would allow her to focus on various loves and talents, such as catering and wedding planning. She had hoped to set up and office and a kitchen in her basement where clients could come. She also testified that she spoke with Williams who told her that Benson was taking her to Biloxi to a casino for her birthday since she had taken him to Savannah for his.
“She said she would be back on Monday and that she would call me,” she said. “That's a call I never got.”
When questioned about Williams' spending habits and if she knew of the loans her sister had made to Benson, Denise told the jurors that her sister saved money but would loan to those closest to her if they were in need.
When asked about the loans Williams made to Benson Denise told Zon “I don't believe in loaning money to a grown man so she wouldn't have had that conversation with me.”
She also said that her sister was a stickler for doing the right thing and would never have been involved in drugs.
Jennifer Benson, the sister of Franklin next took the stand. She testified about getting a call from her brother and going to Williams home on Nov. 3 to help him move his things out. She said when she arrived most of his belongings were packed. She also told jurors that Benson told her that he and Williams had either broken up or were in the process of breaking up.
As Zon began questioning Jennifer on her statements made to Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Brian Johnston, she seemed unable to recall details of her statement. She was asked to step down and given a copy of her statement to read in the interim. After Stantanette Cook, the employee who had shown investigators the strange items in Benson's Decatur shop testified, Jennifer Benson was recalled. Once on the stand she told Zon that she had only read six pages of her statement in the last 20 minutes, prompting Zon to ask “can you read?” She was once again asked to step out of the courtroom with her statement and review it.
GBI Special Agent Lisa Vorrsai, the lead agent in the case, told jurors about the dozens upon dozens of leads that the people involved in the case had followed up on and how when those ran out, they began generating their own leads, at one point visiting meat processing plants in Newton County on the chance that there was an instrument there that was capable of making the cuts seen on Williams' body parts.
Vorrasi also testified that in the initial interview with Benson, it struck her as odd that when told about the body parts found he was convinced that it was Williams, even though they had told him it probably was not, and that he was also referring to her in the past tense. But when he was told in a later interview that the limbs had been positively identified as belonging to Williams, he “didn't really have a reaction.”
“Everyone involved in this investigation was totally dedicated,” she said. “It [the crime] was so out of the ordinary and it was something no one had ever seen before... We all gave 100 percent.”
Vorrasi told jurors about processing Williams' car when it was towed from Tennessee back to GBI Headquarters. She said that a large suitcase had been inventoried by her personally and that the packing not only seemed disorderly, but that several items were still on hangers. Also, the items packed seemed odd, among other things there were towels and washrags, one slipper, an umbrella, two dryer sheets and several sleeveless shirts, which would not be something to pack if one were headed to Michigan in November.
She spoke of Benson's finances, saying that a notice from his bank dated Oct. 29 was found, showing that his account was negative $476.09.
“I would categorize his account as unstable,” she said.
Also, on Oct. 28, Williams' bank denied a charge to her debit card of $7,500. The card had been swiped at Benson's shop. That was something he failed to mention to investigators during several interviews.
When questioned by the defense about failing to test some evidence that was collected, namely tire impressions found near the body parts in Newton County, Vorrasi explained that photos had been taken but it was determined that the marks would probably belong to a law enforcement vehicle.
“You tailor fit the evidence to fit Franklin Benson!” yelled Leah Madden.
“No,” answered Vorrasi firmly, “we collect the evidence and all the evidence pointed to Franklin Benson.”
Jennifer Benson was called once more to the stand and was once again found to be unprepared and difficult. Judge Horace Johnson asked the jury to leave the courtroom before addressing her.
“You will answer the questions or I'm going to hold you in contempt and put you in jail,” he raged. “Are we clear?”
“Yes sir,” she answered meekly.
She answered Zon's questions, though she seemed unhappy about doing so. She referred back to her original statement many times. At one point she told jurors about the day she helped her brother move his belongings out of Williams home. At one point he offered her some beer from the fridge, saying “she's [Leslyan] not going to need this.”
She also testified begrudgingly that she had previously seen a red chainsaw at Williams' home but did not see it that day and that his boots were caked with mud. She told jurors the first time she heard her brother say anything about Williams being missing was Nov. 10 and that at one point he called her and told her the police would be contacting her and not to say anything to them. He also wanted, according to Jennifer, for her to tell police that he had not lived with Williams and that he would not hurt anyone. She admitted thinking the request was odd.
She admitted after being questioned by Zon that Benson had asked her to tell police that Williams was a drug dealer and that she had large quantities of drugs in her home, something she said she never saw. She also refused to tell authorities that.
“I wouldn't do it because from what I know it would be a lie,” she said in a soft voice.
Benson's best friend, business partner and sometimes lover Brenda Harrison spoke to jurors of her and Benson's relationship. She said she did not know about Williams and she found out only when the GBI told her. She also found out at that time that Benson was legally married in early 2007. She admitted to having a “very close relationship” with Benson and with assisting in raising funds to help pay for his defense.
“You didn't know your best friend was married and living with another woman,” asked Zon.
“Those were conversations we never took part in,” Harrison answered.
She also told jurors that Benson had borrowed in excess of $100,000 from her, defining it as more of a business investment that she expected to get back when his businesses “took off.” The money, she testified, was not given to Benson in one lump sum, but over the course of a couple years and was used to pay rent on his shops, for payroll and to generally pay his bills.
“I would give it to him today if he needed it,” she said.
Benson spent one or two nights a week at Harrison's home and spent the night there Oct. 29, arriving after 10 p.m. She said that throughout their relationship he had never threatened her and she had never felt threatened by him.
When Terrence Madden questioned Harrison he too asked about her loans to Benson.
“He owed you $100,000 – did he kill you?” he asked.
“No, I don't think so,” she said with a giggle.
The state rested their case at 11:55 a.m. and at roughly 1:30 p.m. Franklin Benson took the stand and testified in front of a rapt courtroom.
He said that he paid roughly $25,000 a month to keep up his two shops and that his primary residence was with his elderly mother, though he admitting to spending several nights a week at Williams' home and a couple at Harrison's. He also said that although Harrison wasn't aware of Williams, Williams did know about his relationship with Harrison and was “O.K. with it.”
“Leslie [Leslyan Williams] and I had a very good relationship and I cared deeply for her, she was a special person but she knew it wasn't exclusive,” he said. “She knew exactly what our relationship was. I was still technically married and she didn't have a problem with it.”
He called his sister Cassandra an “attention grabber,” and said that he had told her to tell authorities that he wasn't violent with Williams because “it was the truth.”
As for the $7,500 transaction at his shop, he said he wasn't aware of it until he learned it from the prosecution during discovery. He said that Williams must have done it herself when she was at the shop Oct. 28.
As Benson testified, Williams' son Charles was visibly upset, rocking slowly in his seat and looking angrily at Benson, pain evident on his face.
He 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 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 Leah Madden.
“I don't know,” answered Benson. “I should have called...”
He also told jurors that Williams and Shondra were taking small amounts of cocaine from their packages and replacing it with fake drugs and then selling the small amounts of real cocaine on the side.
“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.”
Zon immediately began questioning Benson about his relationship with Harrison and Williams, referring to a statement given to Johnston in which he said that Williams may have been mad at him because she “found out about another female.” She also asked Benson what the argument on Oct. 28 when the police were called was really about, saying that it had nothing to do with promissory notes and everything to do with Williams having found out about Harrison and wanting Benson out of her home – an accusation Benson vehemently denied.
She then questioned why Benson had not done more to help police in locating the mysterious Shondra who Benson said drove a small black car and had a Jamaican accent.
“This girl's out there somewhere,” she said. “And she's probably got a lot of information... If you didn't kill Leslyan Williams this person is a very strong lead to who killed her and you haven't provided a scintilla of information to the police other than an African-American girl with a Jamaican accent... The very worst we can say about you today is that you are a very selfish person who cared more about your own butt than about helping police find a girl you professed to care for.”
When asked why he didn't tell investigators about the drugs when he was arrested for murdering Williams he said that at first he didn't know what he was being arrested for when “Brian Johnston pulled me over and put a gun in my face.”
“When I talked to her at eight o'clock she was fine,” said Benson. “I told her I was finished and I was coming home.”
“Why don't you tell us what the real last conversation with Leslyan was so that her family can hear,” said Zon.
“I loved Leslyan,” Benson said. “As far as being in love with her I don't do that.”
“You didn't love her enough to marry her but you loved her enough to take her money and live with her,” asked Zon. “You cared enough to drop hints but not enough to give them [investigators] information about your location between 5-10 a.m.”
Benson said that he didn't see any way that he could assist them so he pointed them to Tennessee.
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.
Closing arguments will begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17.