Rape conviction from 2015 appealed; new plea expected. 

June 14, 2022

Bentz

Rape conviction from 2015 appealed; new plea expected. 

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

LUDINGTON — The Michigan Court of Appeals recently overturned the rape convictions of a 41-year-old Ludington man who was ordered in 2015 to serve four consecutive sentences of 25 to 75 years in prison, along with an additional term of seven to 15 years, consecutive to the first four convictions.

In June 2015, a jury in Mason County’s 51st Circuit Court found Benjamin Michael Bentz guilty on all counts of molesting a young girl following a two-day jury trial. Bentz was convicted of four counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct (CSC) and one count of second-degree CSC in a case involving a girl who was 8- and 9-years-old at the time of the assaults.

Bentz was arrested in November 2014 by Ludington Police Department. 

The victim in the case provided graphic testimony, stating that four instances of penetration occurred in her bedroom in the family house in Ludington. She also testified to one instance of sexual contact. The incidents occurred when the victim’s mother was in jail.

The Michigan Court of Appeals recently ruled, however, that the testimony provided by Dr. Debra Simms, a physician at DeVos Children’s Hospital, was not based on actual evidence but rather on the doctor’s observations. “She reported that her diagnosis was ‘probable pediatric sexual abuse’ because, although the victim’s physical examination was normal, the victim reported a ‘clear, consistent, detailed, [and] descriptive’ history of sexual abuse to her medical assistants,” an appellant court document states. “On cross-examination, defense counsel elicited testimony from Dr. Simms acknowledging that it was possible, based on the victim’s physical examination, that the victim was not abused. Similarly, Dr. Simms also testified, in response to defense counsel, that it was possible for children to lie about allegations of sexual abuse.” 

Bentz’s defense attorney, representing him in appeal, testified that his trial defense counsel was “ineffective for failing to object to Dr. Simms’s testimony. This court agreed that it was error for Dr. Simms to testify as to her ‘diagnosis’ of probable pediatric sexual abuse, as it was not based on any medical findings, but rather, on the victim’s emotional state and the history the victim provided. Dr. Simms’s ‘diagnosis’ thus amounted to improper vouching for the victim’s credibility.”

Bentz is currently at Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon. According to the Michigan Department of Corrections’ website, Bentz’s earliest release date would have been Nov. 5, 2046 according to his conviction. That has now changed. 

Mason County Prosecuting Attorney Lauren Kreinbrink was not prosecutor when the trial occurred; it was prosecuted by Paul Spaniola, who was Kreinbrink’s predecessor. Kreinbrink said appeal cases are prosecuted by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office and she has been in communication with that office. The next step in appeal would be to take the case to the Michigan Supreme Court, which the AG office is not recommending, Kreinbrink said. 

The case is now back at the 51st Circuit Court. 

“Judge (Susan) Sniegowski called myself and the defense’s attorney together to reach a resolution,” Kreinbrink said, adding she has discussed the case with Spaniola and has also met with the victim, who is now in her late teens. The choices are to drop the charges or re-try the case. Kreinbrink said while a jury trial is always an option, a plea offer is going to be offered to Bentz, to consider a conviction of one count of criminal sexual conduct third degree. 

“The victim has expressed reluctance in taking this case back to trial,” Kreinbrink said. “I explained to her that there is a possibility that we could get a new guilty verdict and there is a possibility of a not guilty verdict. I couldn’t guarantee a conviction in this case.” 

Kreinbrink said another hurdle to re-trying the case is that many of the witnesses, mostly law enforcement personnel, are either retired or no longer employed in that field. 

Because the case went to trial in 2015, the court must use the 2013 sentencing guidelines, which call for the defendant to be imprisoned for 43 to 86 months. Kreinbrink said that plea agreement would basically mean that Bentz would be released from prison. 

Bentz had initially been offered a plea agreement by Spaniola with Bentz serving a minimum of 11 years and three months in prison. Bentz rejected that offer and chose to go to trial. 

Kreinbrink said this case re-surfacing has been difficult. “When you get a conviction, there’s closure. The worst case scenario is to find out, years later, that the case has been appealed. It’s very hard to move forward. But, with a plea agreement there is at least some resolution with a conviction rather than taking the chance of being unsuccessful in a trial and having nothing.”  

The case was originally scheduled to be on today’s 51st Circuit Court docket (Tuesday, June 14), but court was cancelled for the day. It is likely going to be rescheduled for Wednesday, June 22. 

– Allison Scarbrough, editor, contributed to this story.

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