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    Defender of accused saw it as his mission

    The longtime assistant public defender held the view that guilty or not, his clients deserved a voice.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 10, 2002


    TAMPA -- People warned John Benito's parents that his poor eyesight would be a straitjacket. They said he would be lucky to finish high school.

    But while he was legally blind, Benito possessed enough sight to make do with large-print books, glasses and magnifying lenses.

    And he did more than finish high school. After graduating from Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, he went on to Louisville College, where he earned a law degree.

    At the Hillsborough County Courthouse, where he worked as an assistant public defender for the last 28 years, Benito was a ubiquitous presence: quiet, low key and universally liked.

    "He was sort of a mini-institution within an institution," said Assistant Public Defender John Skye, a longtime colleague. "He came in early and stayed late. He went about his job confidently and competently, without a lot of fanfare and chest beating."

    Benito died Monday night, apparently of a heart attack. He was walking near his Tampa home with his wife of 29 years, Pat, when he complained of physical discomfort and collapsed. He could not be revived.

    He was 55 and leaves three grown sons. A public defender's job isn't easy. A lot of your clients are guilty. Some of them hate you as much as they hate the prosecutor. And you will often lose. But colleagues, friends and family said Benito never grew jaded about the job. A devout Catholic, he approached it with a sense of mission.

    "I think he did it because he felt that's where God wanted him," said Tom Brophy, 65, a friend.

    "He felt that everybody deserved a defense, and that not everybody was going to be guilty," said his younger sister, Mary Charles Fleming. "And some were guilty, but they deserve to have their voice heard."

    But the job had its price.

    In 1989, a man he was defending, hoping for a mistrial, clocked Benito with an uppercut and dropped him to the floor before the jury. The defendant was convicted anyway. Benito took a dozen stitches and pressed charges. He didn't want it to be open season on public defenders.

    "He understood it was a possible job hazard," said Assistant Public Defender Jim Lyons, a longtime friend and colleague.

    The punch became a part of courthouse lore, spawning limericks and good-natured gibes, such as the nickname John "I am the Greatest" Benito.

    Benito's cousin, defense attorney Michael Benito, said he was lucky to run into John in court last week.

    "I got a chance to touch his shoulder and tell him goodbye, and I'd see him later," Michael Benito said. "He's a gentleman who was legally blind who put himself through law school, which speaks volumes about his character."

    "You knew when you walked in the courthouse you'd see John Benito, so he'll be missed," said State Attorney Mark Ober. "I thought the world of John. It's a sad day at the Hillsborough County Courthouse."

    A funeral service will be Thursday at Christ the King Catholic Church, 821 S Dale Mabry Highway.

    -- Christopher Goffard can be reached at 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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