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Bennett acquitted of homicide in boat deaths trial

Forsyth man to serve 2.5 years in prison for lesser charges

POSTED: November 14, 2013 11:34 p.m.

Paul J. Bennett was acquitted Thursday evening on eight counts of homicide by vessel in Hall County Superior Court.

Bennett had been on trial since Nov. 4 in in Gainesville for his alleged role in a 2012 boating wreck that killed two Buford boys.

In the June 18, 2012, incident, Bennett’s fishing boat collided with a pontoon carrying 13 people — four adults and nine children. Jake Prince, 9, and Griffin Prince, 13, were killed on impact.

Judge Kathlene Gosselin sentenced Bennett to serve 2½ years’ incarceration and 1½ years of probation on the four misdemeanor charges of reckless boating for speeding, reckless boating for missing a green light, BUI under the legal limit and failure to render aid.

“The jury did find you not guilty of the counts of homicide by vessel, and so you escaped those charges and the possibility of 15 years in jail on each of those,” Gosselin said. “I do have to look at what I’m sentencing on, the charges that I’m sentencing on, but I can’t ignore what I’ve heard for the past two weeks, either.”

Gosselin said she would not sentence the maximum incarceration period in order to allow for some probation.

“This sentence will account for some of that in this case. I cannot do four years stacked, because I feel there has to be some probation. There has to be some other things that go along with this,” she said.

The verdict and sentence polarized both parties in the trial — the Prince family and supporters were visibly upset at the verdict, while Bennett’s lawyer said he felt the sentence was excessive.

“I think the verdict was fair and the sentencing was not,” Bennett’s lead attorney Barry Zimmerman said after sentencing. “I don’t think that is the case that deserved that kind of sentencing, but I thought that jury verdict was fair.”

Zimmerman said in his experience, a first offender being sentenced on misdemeanor charges would not have faced more than 24 hours of jail time, which Bennett had already served.

“My argument was that a normal sentence would be 24 hours in jail, $1,000 fine and 40 hours community service, and merge all the other offenses,” he said.

About eight Hall County deputies were in the courtroom to monitor a packed assembly of people.

“I’ll remind people in the audience not to make any sound or response as the verdict is read,” Gosselin said after glancing over the verdict.

As the clerk read each subsequent count of not guilty, muffled sobs from the Prince side became increasingly audible.

District Attorney Lee Darragh, who was the lead prosecutor in the case, expressed disappointment with the verdict and satisfaction with the sentence.

“While we are disappointed in the extent of the jury’s verdict, the state is grateful for the length of Judge Gosselin’s sentence and the conditions imposed on the convicted criminal Bennett on the charges on which she had the opportunity to sentence,” Darragh said in a written statement. 

“My thoughts and prayers are with the Prince family as they continue to grieve the loss of their boys Jake and Griffin.”

Gosselin said she would let the Princes’ immediate family read their victim impact statements, although it was an unusual circumstance with the acquittal on the homicide charges.

The boys’ mother, Tara Prince, left the courtroom after the verdict. Her friend, Kristi Berrett, read Tara Prince’s statement, which said she is living a life sentence of suffering.

“There are no plea bargains, there is no parole, and there is no release date. There are no visiting days,” she read.

But Zimmerman said it was the jury’s voice that should resonate the most.

“I think the jury spoke, and I think the jury said they didn’t think (Bennett) caused the accident and therefore he didn’t cause the death of these two children,” Zimmerman said. “Once the jury said he didn’t cause the accident, I think the sentence was over the top.”

Jurors deliberated more than 12 hours before reaching a final conclusion.

In an interesting indicator perhaps of the back-and-forth in the trial, the jury foreman had said during jury selection two weeks ago that he followed the case in the news and based on “multiple sources” thought that Bennett’s guilt was “conclusive.” He was also one of the most knowledgeable on boating rules.

Eleven jurors decided Bennett’s fate after a juror was dismissed from deliberations earlier in the day when he revealed he had searched the Internet for the Georgia code on homicide by vessel.

Judge Kathlene Gosselin reprimanded the juror, saying a mistrial would have “wreaked havoc.”

The foreman said that the juror was stopped before he said any of his findings.

Zimmerman said it was unlikely Bennett would serve the entirety of the sentence.

“I’m not sure how exactly the Hall County jail does it, but he’ll get good days for every day he’s in there,” Zimmerman said. “He will not spend 30 months of jail.”

Bennett has no more boating privileges in Georgia and must undergo drug and alcohol evaluations, Gosselin also ruled.

The incident spurred legislators to change the legal alcohol limit for all boaters. State lawmakers passed the “Jake and Griffin Prince BUI Law,” which lowered the legal alcohol limit for boaters in Georgia to 0.08 from 0.10, signed by Gov. Nathan Deal in April this year.


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