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COVER STORY

Pvt. John Bennett Is the Only U.S. Soldier Executed for Rape in Peacetime.

He Was Mentally Troubled and Black. Six White Murderers Were Also on Military Death Row. They Were Spared.

September 10, 2000|RICHARD A. SERRANO | Richard A. Serrano is a Staff Writer in The Times' Washington bureau. He last wrote for the magazine about the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, which was also the subject of his book, "One of Ours," published in 1998 by W.W. Norton

Later, Doris Branham, wife of an Army sergeant, heard the victim at her door. "The little girl was in a disheveled condition and sounded desperate," Branham recalled. "She kept repeating herself. She said 'nigger.' " Bennett was arrested at the Army base theater. Records show he admitted to drinking gin, beer and cognac, and said that when he and a friend happened upon the girl, "my friend dared me to f - - - her." But Bennett claimed the sex was consensual, that "she appeared as though she wanted to go with me. I wish to state that I did not force her at all."

He was charged with rape. Prosecutors added a charge of attempted murder for leaving her behind in the meadow, but the charge was secondary to the rape. At his trial, Gertie was the final prosecution witness; she pointed him out from the stand.

Bennett's defense was brief and ineffective. His lawyer never mentioned his mental history. Bennett declined to testify. So the jury said death, and Bennett was ordered to the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth. By coincidence, one of the military policemen who saw Bennett before he was brought to the United States was William Maddox, a master sergeant with a specialty learned at the end of World War II: he had helped carry out the executions of Gen. Hideki Tojo and other Japanese war criminals. Maddox, too, was sent to a post in Kansas, where the Army soon put his specialty to use. Maddox kept a record of his work, in a spiral notebook filled with details about the soldiers on death row: weight, height and length of necks. In an old box he stored his tools--handcuffs, ankle straps, tape, a collapsing board and plenty of rope. Repeatedly he was summoned to Ft. Leavenworth and the old prison power plant where a wooden gallows had been built.

The last time he would be called up there was to use his skills on a rainy night in the spring of 1961.*

*

BEFORE BENNETT ARRIVED IN THE STATES, HIS FAMILY VISITED THE American Red Cross near their home in Chatham, Va. His mother, Ollie Bennett, told workers that John was her fourth child and that she had "nearly died when he was born," according to a Red Cross record of the conversations. After his birth, she had had "a fit" and was unconscious for a long time. John had been born in the spring. She "did not get out of the house until the next fall."

As her son grew, he began to "hear voices in his sleep," she said. He would rise from bed and try to follow the voices. Other times he suffered night terrors. He was still wetting the bed when he started school. He once fell from a cherry tree and for a long time complained of a headache. But what most frightened him were thunderstorms. Then he would rush off to a dark place to hide.

His father, Percy Bennett, was strong and hard-working, a farmhand and sometime carpenter. He only occasionally "switched" the boy. The boy's grandfather drank heavily and died in the state insane asylum. His great-uncle also drank and was institutionalized for mental problems. A first cousin committed suicide.

John never liked to be alone. "He played with the crowd until he got mad," his family told the Red Cross. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade and went to work alongside his father. He started drinking corn liquor at 13, and frequently got drunk on "aspirin and wine."

John volunteered for Army service and, once enlisted, the Army repeatedly conducted psychiatric evaluations because, according to service records, he told them he had "dizzy spells" several times a week and complained of lightheadedness, body weakness, headaches and stomach cramps. Sometimes he saw distorted color patterns, when everything seemed to turn blue. Whenever he felt a spell coming on, he either reached for the bottle or took to bed.

He was preoccupied with sex. He said he and his Army buddies often visited local Gasthuser in Austria to pick up women. He said he had begun to indulge in "sex play" around age 5 or 6. By the time he was 12 or 13, he had had sex with a girl. He would date a girl until they had sex, then lose interest in her. "He had no guilt or anxiety concerning this behavior," one doctor wrote.

Bennett said he suffered from epilepsy, too, beginning when he was 4 or 5. He would feel a sharp pain over his right ear and would black out. Sometimes, he said, he would begin "running around trying to hurt someone." But the Army seemed unconvinced. The neuropsychiatrists always seemed to conclude with "Psychiatric observation: No disease found."

*

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