The disturbing video that Keaira Bennefield posted on her Facebook page on the night of Sept. 28 shows her being punched, kicked and slapped. For nearly eight minutes, the video shows what her estranged husband inflicted upon her earlier that day, starting a little after 7:30 a.m. Keaira Bennefield wrote on the Facebook post: “this is what this man dose to me but i’m always treated like i’m the abuser!”
She had set up two surveillance cameras from opposite angles in her Cheektowaga apartment. The video shows her walking away from the front door, and then a man tackling her to the floor. He punched her in the stomach and then repeatedly hit, slapped and kicked her as she writhed on the floor. The video shows him holding her down at times and then standing over her, as he appeared to take cell phone photos of her, the flash of the camera flickering against his shirt. He paced around, and then cornered her against a door and pulled at her pants.
She survived that assault.
A week later, Adam Bennefield was arrested for the beating caught on video. But he was charged only with misdemeanors, and he was able to walk out of Cheektowaga Town Court.
The next morning, on Oct. 5, the 30-year-old mother put on a bulletproof vest and prepared to drive her three children to school. Keaira Bennefield was staying at her mother’s house, and she put on the vest because she was terrified of her estranged husband, according to a family representative. While on her way to the school drop-off, she sat in her car near the intersection of Shawnee and Richlawn avenues in Buffalo’s Fillmore-Leroy neighborhood. According to authorities, Adam Bennefield rammed his car into hers, got out of his vehicle, pulled out a shotgun and fatally shot her. Her children were in the backseat.
Following a regionwide manhunt, police arrested Adam Bennefield, who now faces a second-degree murder charge.
The horrific killing raises questions about how the police and courts handled Keaira Bennefield’s case and whether New York’s bail reform laws played a role.
• Should police and judges have more leeway to consider the dangerousness of a defendant – especially in domestic violence cases?
• Should Adam Bennefield have been charged with a more serious offense in the Sept. 28 beating, which would have allowed the town justice to impose bail before releasing him?
• Should police have provided more protection for Keaira Bennefield?
Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn said he believes the state needs to amend its bail reform laws to allow judges to evaluate the dangerousness of a defendant when determining bail.
“This could easily be solved with one sentence in the bail law. You don’t have to throw it all out the window,” Flynn said, pointing out that New York is the only state in the U.S. that doesn’t allow judges to consider “dangerousness.”
‘System let her down’
Adam Bennefield was charged with a misdemeanor count of assault in the third-degree because Keaira Bennefield didn’t appear injured, Flynn said.
“You can’t charge on optics,” he said, adding, “that was the highest charge.”
Because of the level of the charge, under state law, Adam Bennefield didn’t have to post bail to be released.
The judge also could not take into account that Adam Bennefield was convicted in 2000 of kidnapping and escaping from the Erie County Correctional Facility. He was convicted of stealing a car and using it to cut off an ex-girlfriend’s vehicle. He then forced the ex-girlfriend and her friend to drive at gunpoint to Grand Island as police chased them. While awaiting trial, he escaped from the jail. He served 15 years in prison.
Bail law changes enacted in 2020 prevent courts from imposing money bail on virtually all misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. The changes are not to blame in this case, proponents of the changes say.
Police and prosecutors could have charged Adam Bennefield with a felony, such as attempted second-degree assault, which is a bail-qualifying offense that could have allowed the court to require him to make bail to secure his release, said Kevin Stadelmaier, first deputy defender with the Erie County Assigned Counsel Program.
“The ball was absolutely dropped,” said Stadelmaier, adding, “I think it’s a failure of the Cheektowaga police.”
Keaira Bennefield’s family members, who are now planning her funeral, feel the criminal justice system failed her, said Pastor Tim Newkirk of GYC Ministries.
“They truly missed the warning signs,” Newkirk said. “They were supposed to protect her. They were supposed to protect the kids. They were supposed to be the big arm of the law.”
Other women who are being abused by intimate partners are afraid.
Kareema Morris of Bury the Violence, who advocates for crime victims, said two women have reached out to her since Keaira Bennefield’s killing, scared that they could meet a similar fate.
“They’re terrified,” she said. “It’s become a reality that is really happening.”
Morris said the incident should be a wake-up to call to the community.
The police investigation
Cheektowaga Police Chief Brian Gould gave The Buffalo News a detailed account of the investigation into the Sept. 28 beating.
Cheektowaga police received a 911 call at about 9 a.m. Sept. 28 about a female victim being punched by a man. It wasn’t clear whether it was Keaira Bennefield who called or a relative who lives in the building.
Police officers spoke with Keaira Bennefield for about 45 minutes, and she told them her estranged husband hit her.
“There were no visible injuries,” Gould said.
Keaira Bennefield did not ask to go to the hospital. The officers didn’t see a need to take her, Gould said.
Based on that interview, officers determined they would arrest the husband for harassment, a violation that is the lowest kind of charge. It is technically not considered a crime, but can be punished by up to 15 days in jail.
When the officers went to arrest Adam Bennefield, he had locked himself in a bathroom. They gained entry “and due to the condition he was located in,” they decided he should go to Erie County Medical Center for a physical and mental evaluation. Gould declined to elaborate on why the officers made that decision.
In the meantime, Gould said, the officers obtained an arrest warrant on the violation for Adam Bennefield, and told Keaira Bennefield to call the police if her estranged husband returned to the home.
The next day, Thursday, Sept. 29, the Cheektowaga Police Department’s full-time domestic violence advocate called Keaira Bennefield.
She gave more information to the advocate and brought up that she had video of the incident. Keaira Bennefield had already posted the video on her Facebook page, but Gould said she did not tell the police or the advocate about that.
The advocate spoke to a detective, relaying that the case appeared more serious than harassment. The advocate also told the detective about the video evidence.
“This is the first we learn of the video,” Gould said.
At that point, the detective reached out to Keaira Bennefield and gave her a link to a portal to upload the video to the Police Department’s computer system. By that Friday, the video had not been uploaded and Gould said the detective called Keaira Bennefield, who said she was having trouble sending it. They arranged for her to come to the police station on Monday and show the officers the video in person.
The following Sunday night , Keaira Bennefield called Cheektowaga police. She thought someone was in her house. Patrol officers arrived at her apartment but did not find anyone else there. However, she showed them the video, which prompted the officers to call their supervisors.
The detectives, who were off duty, were called in to further investigate.
“They review it,” Gould said. “After doing a more in depth investigation with video evidence now, they determine it should be misdemeanor assault.”
Gould said they added more charges: two counts of criminal mischief in the fourth degree, one count of menacing in the second degree, one count of unlawful imprisonment in the second degree – all misdemeanors and the harassment violation.
Gould said he understands the public outrage over only misdemeanors being charged.
“If you just look at it on the video without any further investigation, it’s disturbing,” he said. “That’s why the detectives were called in Sunday night. But you need to look at the actual laws.”
The charge of second-degree assault, a felony, requires a “serious physical injury” that could lead to death or serious long-term consequences, Gould said.
“I get it – the video looks violent. We can’t base criminal charges on how we feel about something,” Gould said. “She was not seriously physically injured by that fight.”
No option but release
On Monday, Oct. 3, Keaira Bennefield came to the police station and signed paperwork regarding the charges.
In the meantime, Gould said, Adam Bennefield went to Family Court and got an order of protection against Keaira Bennefield. Family Court wanted Cheektowaga police to serve Keaira Bennefield with the order, but the department informed the court about the investigation and the Family Court request was withdrawn.
The police contacted Adam Bennefield and arranged for him to come to the police station on Tuesday, Oct. 4. He came in and was arrested. Then he was taken to Cheektowaga Town Court before Justice David Stevens.
“The officers went down there and let the court know, you really need to do whatever you can,” Gould said.
The advocate also passed along information to the assistant district attorney in court.
“They learned there was no option but to release him,” Gould said.
The prosecution asked for an order of protection, ordering Adam Bennefield to stay away from Keaira Bennefield. And then he was released.
The advocate alerted Keaira Bennefield that her estranged husband was free, and also told her about the order of protection. They were working on finding housing for her.
The next morning, she was fatally shot.
Newkirk, the GYC Ministries pastor, said the family believes the police should have been monitoring Adam Bennefield.
The police knew what he reportedly did to Keaira from watching the video and that he had a history of disregarding the law. Bail law changes wouldn’t have prevented them from protecting Keaira, Newkirk said.
“They should have been following him from the minute he was let go,” Newkirk said.
The Family Justice Center – Erie County provides a one-stop shop for domestic violence survivors. Anyone being abused or needs help can get free, confidential help. The Family Justice Center can be reached by calling 716-558-7233 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Maki Becker, The Buffalo News. Click here to view the original post.