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Carter County murder case set for trial in 2020

Becky Campbell • Updated Oct 19, 2018 at 5:51 PM

ELIZABETHTON — A man facing the death penalty if he’s convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his elderly neighbor now has two attorneys and can wear civilian clothes to his court appearances, according to two recent orders filed by Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice. 

Rice and attorneys in the case as well as one of the state’s capital case managers also hammered out dates for motion deadlines, hearings and a trial that’s more than a year away.

Chad Benfield, 45, was indicted on two counts of first-degree murder in the beating death of 89-year-old Mary Nolen. Benfield lived a short distance from Nolen in Stoney Creek when she was found badly injured July 14, 2017 by her daughter and granddaughter. Nolen was transported to Johnson City Medical Center, where she died on July 26, 2017.

A forensic examination of evidence collected from Nolen, including fingernail clippings, contained DNA that investigators say identified Benfield as the woman’s attacker. He was arrested on the charges in August 2017.

Benfield has been represented by the Public Defender’s Office from the beginning of his case, but after prosecutors file a notice to seek the death penalty, Assistant Public Defender Melanie Sellers filed a motion asked the judge to appoint private co-counsel due to the amount of work required in a death penalty case. Rice appointed attorney Gene Scott to that slot in September.

At that same time, Rice also granted a defense motion to allow Benfield to wear civilian clothing to his court hearings due to the amount of pretrial publicity the case has received.

“A significant potential exists for the jury pool in this case to be tainted by and publicized appearances of Mr. Benfield in jail garb before this court,” Sellers wrote in her motion. “Defense counsel expects that pretrial publicity in this case will only increase given the recent decision by the District Attorney’s Office to seek the death penalty in this case.”

In a court hearing earlier this week, the parties set several deadlines and hearing dates in the case. Five days in 2019 — May 26, July 30, Sept. 12 and 13 and Nov. 12 — were set aside for motion hearings. Rice ruled that motions must be filed 20 days prior to the hearing date with a response from the other party due 10 days prior to the hearing.

Jury selection for the trial will be held Nov. 18-22, 2019, and the trial is scheduled for Jan. 6-17, 2020. The case was set so far out due to the high scrutiny nature of a death penalty case and all the pretrial work that must be done.

The state’s reasons for seeking the death penalty included:

  • The murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse beyond that necessary to produce death.
  • The woman’s death was “knowingly committed.”
  • The third reason was the woman’s age of 89.
  • The fourth reason was that the slaying was committed “at random and the reasons for the killing are not obvious or easily understood.”

Benfield remains jailed on $500,000 bond.

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