ELKTON — A man is facing up to 15 years in prison sentences after a jury convicted him of four charges relating to his role in the robbery of a 13-year-old boy near North East while the teen was attempting to trade a cellphone for a vape pen containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Jurors deliberated nearly five hours late Thursday at the end of a two-day trial in Cecil County Circuit Court, before finding the defendant, Bryan Bennett, 30, of Bear, Del., guilty of second-degree assault and conspiracies to commit robbery, second-degree assault and theft of less than $100.
In response to a mid-trial defense motion by Elkton-based lawyer Christina Louise Harris Schlecker, Cecil County Circuit Court Judge Brenda A. Sexton granted judgment of acquittals regarding first-degree assault and armed robbery, which, carrying maximum sentences of 25 and 20 years respectively, were the most serious charges against Bennett. The judge also granted judgment of acquittals for reckless endangerment and related conspiracy charges.
Bennett opted not to testify in his own defense. Moments before Bennett made that decision on Thursday, Cecil County Interim State’s Attorney James Dellmyer had notified the court outside the presence of jurors that, if the defendant were to take the witness stand, he planned to question Bennett about his unrelated 2012 armed robbery conviction in Delaware.
Sentencing is set for Oct. 4. While conspiracy to commit robbery is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, the other lesser convictions are expected to merge at sentencing. Arrested a couple of days after the February incident, Bennett will remain in the Cecil County Detention Center without bond until sentencing.
In his opening statement to jurors, Dellmyer outlined that the boy had made arrangements with an unknown person through social media to trade an old cellphone for a vape pen and that, as a result of those communications, two men and a teen arrived at the victim’s home on Jamestown Court off Irishtown Road in North East at approximately 5:30 p.m. Feb. 12 in a vehicle.
Dellmyer reported that Bennett was the driver; that one of his co-defendants, Montez Lavon Jarven Alexander, 19, of Elkton, occupied the front passenger’s seat; and that his remaining co-defendant, a 14-year-old boy, occupied the rear passenger’s side seat.
(Alexander is facing 14 charges, including armed robbery and first-degree assault, for his alleged role, and his jury trial is scheduled to start Tuesday, court records show. In April, the juvenile court case against the teen defendant was placed on the stet, or inactive docket. As part of that plea deal, the teen is confined to his residence, with specified exceptions, and he wears a GPS monitoring device, according to his testimony and other information released during Bennett’s trial.)
After the boy got into the rear driver’s side seat, Bennett drove to a location on Old Elk Neck Road, about 15 minutes away from the victim’s residence, and instructed Alexander to grab a gun beneath his seat, according to the state’s case.
At that point, Alexander allegedly pointed the short-barreled gun — an airsoft gun that had been modified to look like a real firearm — at the victim and ordered him to surrender his new cellphone, his hooded sweatshirt and his sneakers, prosecutors said. After the boy surrendered those items, he was told get out of the vehicle and to run, which he did, prosecutors added.
The victim testified Thursday that Bennett got upset because he believed that the old cellphone offered as barter for the vape pen did not work.
After remarking, “You’re trying to give me a broken phone,” and, “You tried to rip us off, now we’re going to rip you off,” Bennett instructed Alexander to “get the strap,” which is slang for “gun,” and then Alexander reached beneath his front passenger’s seat and brandished a firearm, according to the victim, who also told jurors that the gun was then pointed at him.
“It looked like it was an assault rifle. I was scared, like I was going to die,” the boy told jurors.
One of the co-defendants handed the boy’s relinquished new cellphone to Bennett, who then handed it to the teen co-defendant and instructed him to reset it, after the victim said he did not know how to do it, the victim testified.
After the boy surrendered his cellphone, hoodie and shoes, Bennett ordered him to get out of the car and threatened, “Hurry up and run, before I shoot you,” the boy told jurors.
The boy later reported the armed robbery to Maryland State Police, and the case was assigned to Det. John Wildman.
Schlecker opined that the state’s case against Bennett was hampered by suspect identification problems, maintaining to jurors that the victim failed to tell investigators that Bennett had a beard. He had described Bennett only as a tall, black man wearing dark clothing, including a black hoodie and bandana.
She also questioned how the victim could have accurately described Bennett because, according to the victim’s testimony, the victim saw him face to face only for a few seconds during the incident. “He looked at the back of his head,” Schlecker maintained, reminding jurors that the victim was seated directly behind the driver.
The defense lawyer also contended that, after MSP investigators had arrested Bennett, they failed to show the victim a photo array or a lineup of possible suspects so the boy could make a positive suspect identification.
At trial, the victim was one of the two state witnesses who pointed at Bennett, who was seated at the defense table beside Schlecker at the time, and identified him as the suspect.
The other was the teen’s co-defendant, who, according to Schlecker, had an ulterior motive for offering state witness testimony. While cross-examining the co-defendant, Schlecker proffered that he had received a deal from prosecutors in his related juvenile case in exchange for his testimony. The co-defendant denied the defense lawyer’s assertion, maintaining that he was testifying truthfully.
Schlecker also emphasized that the co-defendant identified Bennett only by an alias and he testified that he did not know Bennett’s real name until after the arrests.
Testimony by the victim and Wildman indicated that the serial number for the new cellphone that had been stolen played a role in detectives tracking it down.
During a search of an Elkton residence — where Alexander’s mother lives and Bennett often stayed — a cellphone with that ID number and matching the description given by the victim was found inside a duffel bag, Wildman told jurors. That duffel bag was found in a bedroom that Bennett used when staying at that residence, Wildman testified.
In addition to the victim’s cellphone, that duffel bag contained a vape pen and clothing matching the victim’s description of what the driver was wearing during the robbery, according to state testimony.
Schlecker questioned why detectives did not check the recovered cellphone for fingerprints and DNA to scientifically connect Bennett to it. Wildman testified that investigators already had gathered enough evidence to link Bennett to the phone, the vape pen and to the crime.
In addition, the defense lawyer reminded jurors that there were discrepancies in the state witnesses’ descriptions of the vehicle used in the robbery.
During his closing argument, Dellmyer reminded jurors that the victim and the co-defendant had identified Bennett as the suspect who drove the car and that investigators found the victim’s cellphone and a vape pen in a duffel bag inside a bedroom linked to Bennett.
Dellmyer also urged jurors not to be sidetracked by Schlecker’s assertions, including that investigators failed to check for fingerprints and DNA on the recovered cell phone, categorizing them as “smoke-and-mirrors” defense tactics.