Dr. James Patrick, Lucas County coroner, said Monday that new information provided to his office by the FBI Jan. 20 resulted in a change as to the cause of death. Dr. Patrick says Benton was not found unresponsive, but that he became unresponsive after being placed in a choke hold. The coroner's verdict states that Benton, 25, died of "anoxic encephalopathy following application of a carotid sleeper hold."
He said that he received a CD of interviews from the FBI in January and in those interviews, there was credible evidence that Benton was placed in a sleeper hold by someone who likely had an arm around his neck to restrain him. Dr. Patrick says it is possible to choke someone without leaving marks.
The coroner also tells us that while it is not common to change a ruling, it has happened at least two other times when new information became available. Originally, Patrick had ruled Benton's death as due to natural causes.
Dan Steinbock is an associate dean at the University of Toledo college of law. He told us, "What I think might be interesting is what impact the death certificate was going to play and might now. The defendants may seek continuance of the case."
Benton was being held in the jail for murder. He was accused of killing his cousin and his cousin's wife.
The decision comes just weeks prior to the federal criminal trial of Sheriff James Telb and three former and current employees charged with crimes associated with Benton's death in June 2004. Also charged with Telb were Lieutenant Robert McBroom, retired deputy Jay Schmeltz and retired sergeant John Gray
The charges originally were for assault and an alleged cover-up that included making false statements.
Last May, Sheriff Telb told us he was confident about the outcome of the case. "I've spent all my adult life in criminal justice and I'm confident when this thing's all over, I'll be exonerated."
The trial is set to begin in May 10. Telb and the others have pleaded not guilty. Attorneys were in federal court in late March for pretrial arguments.
Because this is a federal case, the jurors will be chosen from several northwest Ohio counties. Steinbock says once the case is finished in federal court, it may not be over. "Even if they are all acquitted of all the charges here in the federal court, including the violation of the deceased's civil rights, it is a separate crime and a separate entity-- the state-- that could prosecute for straight-out some level of homicide."