Delaware man jailed for sex of­fenses

Kent County News - - FRONT PAGE - By TR­ISH MCGEE pm­cgee@thekent­coun­tynews.com

— A church mu­si­cian con­victed of in­ap­pro­pri­ate sex­ual con­tact with a vul­ner­a­ble parish­ioner was or­dered to spend three months in the Kent County De­ten­tion Cen­ter and to be placed on the sex of­fender reg­istry.

Ben­nett Thomas John­son Jr., 68, of Clayton, Del., must reg­is­ter his ad­dress ev­ery year for 15 years.

In sen­tenc­ing Fri­day in the Cir­cuit Court for Kent County, Judge Paul M. Bow­man de­scribed the crime as a “lifechang­ing event” for the vic­tim, a 22-year-old man who is in­tel­lec­tu­ally chal­lenged.

Bow­man sen­tenced John­son to one year in the county jail, with all but three months sus­pended. John­son was given credit for the eight days he served in lockup be­fore he was re­leased on bail in April.

Upon re­lease from in­car­cer­a­tion, John­son is to be placed on five years of su­per­vised pro­ba­tion. As a spe­cial con­di­tion of his pro­ba­tion, John­son is to sub­mit to a men­tal health eval­u­a­tion and to com­plete treat­ment as rec­om­mended. He is to have no con­tact with the vic­tim.

John­son faced a max­i­mum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

In ex­change for John­son’s plea to a fourth-de­gree sex of­fense, the Of­fice of the Kent County State’s At­tor­ney agreed to rec­om­mend a sen­tence of three months of ac­tive in­car­cer­a­tion. The sen­tenc­ing guide­lines rec­om­mended up to six months.

The plea agree­ment was not bind­ing on the court.

As part of the deal, pros­e­cu­tors dis­missed the ad­di­tional charges of third-de­gree sex of­fense and sec­ond-de­gree as­sault.

The of­fenses were al­leged to have oc­curred June 1, 2016 to July 30, 2016 at a church, where John­son had been a mu­si­cian and parish­ioner for about 10 years, ac­cord­ing to the state’s at­tor­ney’s of­fice. Over time, John­son had de­vel­oped a friend­ship with the vic­tim and mem­bers of the vic­tim’s fam­ily.

The Rock Hall Po­lice De­part­ment con­ducted the in­ves­ti­ga­tion that re­sulted in charges be­ing filed against John­son.

He was in­dicted by a Kent County grand jury in early Jan­uary, but the Kent County Sher­iff’s Of­fice was un­able to serve the ar­rest war­rant un­til March 27. John­son was out of state and “some­what hard to find,” then-Kent County State’s At­tor­ney Har­ris Mur­phy said at the time.

John­son was ini­tially held in the Kent County De­ten­tion Cen­ter with­out bail. He was re­leased April 4 af­ter post­ing $75,000 bond.

On Aug. 21, John­son en­tered an Al­ford plea to fourth-de­gree sex of­fense. He did not ad­mit guilt, but con­ceded that the prose­cu­tor had suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence to gain a con­vic­tion.

Dur­ing sen­tenc­ing last week, State’s At­tor­ney G. Robert Mow­ell told the court that John­son had a prior con­vic­tion for sex­ual as­sault in 1979 but there was no ac­tive jail time in that case. The vic­tim was an 11-year-old boy.

John­son “needs to know that he can­not do this and there are con­se­quences. One of those se­ri­ous con­se­quences is in­car­cer­a­tion,” Mow­ell told the court. He ob­jected strongly to home de­ten­tion. The vic­tim in this case and the vic­tim’s guardian were un­able to at­tend Fri­day’s sen­tenc­ing. A let­ter from the vic­tim was sub­mit­ted to the court. Bow­man read the let­ter while seated at the bench, but did not dis­cuss its con­tents.

Lutherville-based de­fense at­tor­ney Joseph Murtha asked that John­son be placed on home de­ten­tion with a pe­riod of su­per­vised pro­ba­tion. If the court de­ter­mined that in­car­cer­a­tion was ap­pro­pri­ate, Murtha asked that it be capped at three months.

Murtha por­trayed John­son as a man who had “lived a life of ser­vice and ded­i­ca­tion to oth­ers.” Ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments sub­mit­ted by the de­fense, John­son has a master’s de­gree in the­ol­ogy and had done mis­sion­ary work for eight years in Haiti.

He cur­rently is em­ployed by a Delaware non­profit that pro­vides ser­vices for the home­less and those re­ceiv­ing men­tal health and sub­stance abuse treat­ments, ac­cord­ing to de­fense doc­u­ments sub­mit­ted to the court.

Murtha said John­son had “suf­fered a lot of losses” due to the crim­i­nal charges against him and had health is­sues due to stress.

When given the op­por­tu­nity to ad­dress the court, John­son said, “I don’t know what I could add other than I am very sad that we have to be here.”

Bow­man told John­son that he had to be held ac­count­able for what he had done. “There have to be con­se­quences,” the judge said.

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