The murder of Keaira Bennefield has become a rallying cry for opponents of bail reform.
Had her husband, Adam Bennefield, not been released after being charged with misdemeanor assault, she’d still be alive, they assert.
But a half-dozen attorneys told Investigative Post the fault lies not with bail reform but Cheektowaga police and Erie County District Attorney John Flynn. Police and prosecutors could have charged Adam Bennefield with more serious crimes that would have made him bail eligible, befitting the assault on his wife a week before authorities say he shot her to death.
According to Judith Olin, director of the University at Buffalo Law School’s Family Violence and Women’s Rights Law Clinic, the case illustrates the failure of law enforcement to charge domestic violence cases appropriately.
“Based upon my review of the deceased victim’s statement, there was probable cause to charge two bail-eligible felonies,” Olin told Investigative Post, after reviewing police reports and charging documents, which included Keaira Bennefield’s account of the beating she took from her husband on Sep. 28. She also viewed video Keaira Bennefield provided police of the assault.
Olin, a former prosecutor in the Erie County District Attorney’s office, said Adam Bennefield could have been charged with felony sexual assault and felony unlawful imprisonment charges. Those charges would have allowed a judge to set bail.
“Undercharging crimes of sexual assault in the context of an intimate partner relationship is common,” Olin said.
She cited a 2015 study by the U.S. Department of Justice that indicated police are particularly prone to “under-recognizing and undercharging intimate partner violence crimes,” especially when the victims are women of color, like Keaira Bennefield.
Investigative Post spoke with four local criminal defense attorneys who agreed with Olin’s assessment, though none would say so on the record, for fear it would adversely affect their relationships with the district attorney’s office.
Kevin Stadelmaier, first deputy defender with the Erie County Assigned Counsel Program, was less hesitant.
“The ball was absolutely dropped,” Stadelmaier told The Buffalo News last month. “I think it’s a failure of the Cheektowaga police.”
Assault, then murder
On the afternoon of Sep. 28, police said Adam Bennefield assaulted his estranged wife in the Cheektowaga house where she was living with their three children and sister-in-law.
He beat and threatened to kill her, while brandishing knives, according to statements she made to Cheektowaga police later that day and in the days that followed. During the beating, he locked the door so she couldn’t escape. He took her cell phone so she couldn’t call for help.
Cheektowaga police at first decided to charge her husband with second-degree harassment — a violation under state law, less serious than a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 15 days in jail.
By the time he was arraigned in Cheektowaga Town Court on Oct. 4, however, the police had come to appreciate the severity of the assault and the danger Adam Bennefield posed, according to Cheektowaga Police Chief Brian Gould.
As a result, a host of misdemeanor charges were added, including menacing and third-degree assault.
Revisions to the state’s bail statutes enacted in 2019 aimed to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders held in jail, unable to afford bail, while awaiting trial. Those reforms prohibited the judge from setting bail, despite Adam Bennefield’s violent criminal past.
So he was released. The following day, according to authorities, he ambushed his wife as she was driving their three kids to school, ramming his car into hers, then shot her to death with a shotgun in front of the children.
Detractors of the state’s bail reform measures pounced.
“This really is a serious and horrific failure of bail reform laws,” said Nick Langworthy, chair of the state Republican Party and a candidate for Congress, according to a Buffalo News report. “But for the changes to our criminal justice system in 2019, this would never have happened.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin has used the murder as fodder in his campaign against incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul, a defender of bail reform:
On Tuesday, Adam Bennefield attacked his wife, was arrested, charged with many crimes, & released on cashless bail. The next day, he killed her in front of their 3 kids. @KathyHochul won’t give judges discretion to weigh dangerousness so now these 3 kids no longer have their mom.
— Lee Zeldin (@leezeldin) October 7, 2022
A New York Post headline declared, “No-cash bail murder of Buffalo mom could cost Hochul election.”
Republican state Senator Ed Rath III, invoked the Bennefield murder during a debate Tuesday with his Democratic opponent, state Senator Sean Ryan.
“It’s high time we repeal this disastrous law in New York state,” Rath said.
Ryan responded that the lesson to be learned from Keaira Bennefield’s murder was that her husband — a man with a history of violence and mental health issues — shouldn’t have been able to lay his hands on a shotgun.
“She’s being re-victimized by politicians who are trying to score cheap points in an election year,” Ryan said.
The victim’s words
At an Oct. 21 press conference, Flynn, the district attorney, pushed back vehemently at the assertion that his office and Cheektowaga police undercharged Bennefield. He noted that felony assault charges would have required evidence of physical injuries, which was lacking.
“She was not injured at all,” Flynn said.
For that reason, Flynn said, the Cheektowaga police and his office could only charge misdemeanor assault.
“That’s what the evidence was. There was zero evidence for anything higher than that,” Flynn said, calling the idea the misdemeanor could have been upgraded to a felony “ridiculous.”
According to Olin, however, the victim’s statements to police provided sufficient evidence to level more serious charges.
Keaira Bennefield told police her husband pinned her to the floor, pulled down her pants and stuck his fingers inside her, “demanding to smell [her] vagina” to determine if she’d had sex with another man.
“Adam grabbed my legs and told me to take my pants off,” she told police in a deposition on Oct. 3, the day before her husband was arraigned for the attack. “I tried to kick him off and he was grabbing at my pants trying to take them off. Adam was able to get my button undone and broke the zipper to my jeans. Adam was then able to take my pants down to about my knees and he stuck his hand in my vagina. I was screaming for Rachel who is Adam’s sister.”
Olin said those statements justified a charge of felony sexual assault, a charge that would have allowed a judge to set bail. The charge requires the offender to have used “forcible compulsion” to engage in unwanted sexual contact.
During the assault, Adam Bennefield took his wife’s phone so she couldn’t call for help. He locked the door to the house, brandished knives and threatened to kill her, according to her statements.
When Rachel, her sister-in-law, came to the door in response to Keaira Bennefield’s calls for help, “[Adam] told her that he was not done with me and that I was not going anywhere,” according to the Oct. 3 statement.
“Adam also told Rachel that I was not getting out of there alive,” Keaira Bennefield said.
Olin said the use of a weapon and the threat of violence justified a charge of felony unlawful imprisonment, another bail eligible offense. The difference between misdemeanor and felony unlawful imprisonment is that the felony requires the victim is exposed to a risk of “serious physical injury.”
“I think Adam is capable of killing me,” Keaira Bennefield told police.
At his Oct. 21 press conference, Flynn took aim at the criticism coming from Stadelmaier of the Erie County Assigned Counsel Program, without naming Stadelmaier specifically.
“For a criminal defense attorney to say that the original charges should have been upgraded to a felony is ridiculous,” Flynn said.
“They’re basically advocating that we fabricate evidence and fabricate charges. We don’t do that. We don’t upgrade charges unethically.”
Olin and other attorneys who spoke with Investigative Post did not suggest Adam Bennefield should have been charged with felony assault.
Rather, they argued the victim’s statements justified charges of felony sexual assault and unlawful imprisonment.
Revising bail reforms
Olin believes the state bail reform statutes need revision. In a guest column published two weeks ago in The Buffalo News, she advocated for making domestic violence charges — including misdemeanors — eligible for bail, because domestic violence often escalates.
She noted that one in four women are victims of intimate partner violence, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, and that incidents in Erie County increased between 2020 and 2021 by 12.5 percent.
“While police could have charged felonies in this case, domestic violence misdemeanors should be bail-eligible because of the risk of further violence inherent in these cases,” Olin told Investigative Post.
If the misdemeanors with which Bennefield was charged had been eligible for bail, she added, it’s possible the bail would have been set high enough that he’d have been unable to post it.
Or perhaps not, according to analysis by Josh Solomon of the Albany Times-Union, who has reported extensively on the effects of the 2019 bail reform measures.
“Available state data show that the charges Adam Bennefield was arraigned on in Cheektowaga Town Court, both before and after the 2019 changes to bail laws, almost always led to a person [being] released on their own recognizance,” Solomon reported on Oct. 10, two days before Bennefield was arrested for his wife’s murder, after a weeklong manhunt.
Solomon reported that those released on their own recognizance were rarely re-arrested for violent crimes while out on bail awaiting trial.
At his Oct. 21 press conference, Flynn insisted he was an advocate for bail reform before 2019, but thinks the statute adopted that year “went too far.” He’d like the statute — which underwent some changes in 2020 — to be revised again with the addition of “one simple sentence.”
“Give the judges the ability to factor in [an accused offender’s] dangerousness — either to themselves or other people — in evaluating bail,” he said.
Bennefield has been charged with second-degree murder, among other offenses. He faces a sentence of 25 years to life in prison, if found guilty. He is being held without bail.
The misdemeanors related to the Sep. 28 assault have been adjourned until January but will be “difficult if not impossible” to prosecute, according to Flynn, because the primary witness to the assault — the victim — is dead.