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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Drug-murder case turns on witness' believability
Testimony from a witness with a checkered past is key to both sides in the trial.
By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
Published December 13, 2007
Yusef "Voodoo" Wilson demonstrates what he saw happen the night John Jason Benjamin died in the first-degree murder trial of Christopher Michael Wright, 46, Wednesday.
[David Degner | Times]
NEW PORT RICHEY - Christopher Wright's defense from a lifetime in prison is that eyewitness Yusef Wilson can't be believed in the brutal 2005 death of John Jason Benjamin.
But "Voodoo" - Wilson's nickname - is also one of the state's strongest witnesses against Wright.
On the stand Wednesday, he proved why.
"When the car stopped," prosecutor Mike Halkitis asked the witness, "did you see Christopher Wright do something?"
"He reached around John Benjamin's throat and cut John Benjamin's throat," said Wilson, clad in orange and white jail garb, mimicking the movement as best his shackled hands could.
"What happened next?" Halkitis asked.
"John Benjamin exited very fast out of the truck," Wilson said.
Wilson's testimony last month helped persuade a jury to convict Daniel Lee Parbel of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison for his role in Benjamin's death over a $300 drug debt.
He was called to testify again against Wright, 46, who faces the same charge and fate if convicted.
Wilson was there the night of Sept. 25, 2005, when the state says Parbel and Wright kidnapped Benjamin, beat him, slashed and stabbed him and left the body of the 37-year-old father of two in an SUV they doused with gasoline and burned to destroy the evidence.
And Wilson also witnessed Benjamin's near escape from his brutal fate - but did nothing to help.
"He runs past and yells 'Help me, Voodoo, help me,'" Wilson said.
After Benjamin escaped his attackers, he got into the 2004 Isuzu Trooper and almost drove off before it got stuck in the sand. He was re-captured and killed, the state said.
In cross-examination, defense attorney Bjorn Brunvand got Wilson to acknowledge he had a criminal record, that he was in jail and that he had been smoking crack cocaine throughout the day of the killing.
And he made sure jurors heard this exchange:
"You were asked if you wanted to be a witness or a defendant?" Brunvand said, "and if you were witness you understood that you would not be charged with anything in this case, yes? "
"Yes," Wilson said.
Wright took the stand later Wednesday and admitted he was there when Benjamin died - but denied taking part in beating or cutting him.
It was Parbel who slashed the Benjamin's throat, he said.
Both sides then rested. Closing arguments begin today.