The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
High court told unfit psychiatrist botched defense;
Justices to rule whether damning testimony from defense witness should merit new murder trial.
By Bill Rankin
November 17, 1998
When accused killer Jack Bennett went to trial facing the death penalty in 1990, his defense lawyers relied on one defense: Bennett was insane when he stabbed his wife more than 100 times and then beat her with a claw hammer.
The lawyers hired respected psychiatrist Boaz Harris as their chief witness. But Harris’ testimony turned out to be so disastrous and damaging for Bennett that he deserves a new trial, an Atlanta lawyer argued Monday to the Georgia Supreme Court.
“He was a parody of a psychiatric expert,” attorney Stephen Cowen told the court. “A bum off the street would have been more effective.” During his testimony, Harris called Bennett a “vicious maniac.”
Attorneys later learned that Harris, founder of Charter Peachford Hospital of Atlanta, suffered from AIDS dementia when he testified at the trial. He died six months later.
Bennett, now 70, was sentenced to the electric chair for the June 1989 killing of his newlywed wife, Gloria, a Lithia Springs High School dietitian. Bennett, an Atlanta Dairies milkman with no prior history of violence, has said he believed his wife was plotting to kill him.
Bennett’s appeal is only the latest difficult death penalty case facing the Georgia Supreme Court. On Monday, the court resolved one pending appeal, affirming by unanimous decision the death sentence against ex-Gwinnett Police Officer Michael Chapel in the 1993 killing and armed robbery of Emogene Thompson.
In August, Superior Court Judge Ben Miller, who presided over Bennett’s appeal, ruled that Bennett deserves a new trial because Harris’ testimony was too prejudicial for jurors to hear.
In arguments before the Supreme Court, Susan Boleyn, assistant state attorney general, urged the court to reinstate Bennett’s death sentence. Bennett’s lawyers committed no blunders and Harris’ damaging testimony came as the result of “skillful” tactics used by Douglas County prosecutors, she said.
Several months before trial, Harris examined Bennett and determined he experienced a psychotic episode when he turned on his wife. Harris also suggested Bennett may have had a bad reaction to Zantac, a drug he had been prescribed for a hernia.
But on the day Harris was to testify, he appeared at Bennett’s lawyers’ office wearing ill-fitting, dirty clothes. His body shook, his hands trembled and he could barely stand. Relatives later testified Harris could hardly take care of himself and had recently chased his live-in companion around the house with a knife or garden tool.
Under cross-examination at the time, District Attorney David McDade asked Harris how he would treat Bennett in the future. “I’d give him Tylenol as needed for his headache and I’d tell him to take — to stay on Zantac. . . . (And) I’d send him home with follow-up care.”
The testimony evoked laughter throughout the courtroom, including the jury.
Later, Harris was shown the crime-scene photos and asked if it looked like Gloria Bennett committed suicide. When Harris said it didn’t, McDade thanked him and turned to walk away. But Harris stopped him, asking, “Would it be appropriate for me to make one more comment?”
He then volunteered, “This looks like the work of a vicious maniac.” When McDade asked him who did it, Harris replied, “Mr. Bennett.”
“A first-year law student could have destroyed Dr. Harris on cross-examination,” Cowen told the justices. “(Bennett’s lawyers) should have realized, using their own common sense, there was something wrong with this man.”