Fly Benzo sentenced to three years probation

A group of supporters outside the Hall of Justice with Benzo, center, holding up a court document

Debray Carpenter, aka Fly Benzo, was sentenced in court April 27. He received three years of probation with a long list of conditions.

Benzo, student at City College, was arrested at an Oct. 18 rally in Mendell Plaza. During that incident, police officers John Norment and Joshua Fry of the Bayview precinct apparently unplugged a boombox that they said was not authorized in a street outlet. Then, when officers began videotaping Benzo, he took out his camera phone and began videotaping them as well. He was convicted of misdemeanor assault of a police officer and misdemeanor resisting arrest by Judge Jerome Benson on Feb 22.

April 27, in a courtroom with dozens of supporters, the judge announced that Benzo would serve six months each in county jail for three counts of which we was convicted, but as the six-month sentences for counts one and three could be served concurrently, the jail time would add up to a year total.

However, these sentences were suspended, and barring a change, Benzo will not serve that jail time.

The conditions include a ban on the possession of weapons, a requirement to submit to any search and seizure by police officers with or without a warrant, an order to complete anger management classes, a stay-away order from Third St. between Oakdale and Quesada, a requirement that he be enrolled full time in school and/or work, a requirement to obey all lawful orders by a police officer as well as remain arms-length away from all police officers, and about $1,000 in fees for expenses like booking and court assessment.  

The judge also ordered 30 days in country jail, although 11 days already served brought the sentence to 19. However, Benzo will likely serve those days through the sheriff’s work alternative program (SWAP)—that means 19 days sweeping up the sidewalks in an orange vest. 

Benzo served the 11 days before he was released on $95,000 bail.

Judge Benson also ordered that Benzo apologize to SFPD officers Norment and Fry, although the apology is not a condition of probation.

“A true apology comes from within, and it would not be a true apology if I order it,” said the judge, who came out of retirement to preside over Benzo’s case.

Benzo’s lawyer Severa Keith stated objections to two of the conditions: the requirement to submit to searches and the stay-away order. Keith objected to the search requirement on the grounds that neither contraband nor weapons plays no part in his case, and Benzo was not in the possession of either at the time of his arrest.

The area of the stay-away order includes Mendell Plaza.  An important public square in Bayview, the plaza’s meaning was given new weight when it was the site of the killing of Kenneth Harding, Jr

Harding, 19, was killed in August 2011. Harding was leaving a T train when police asked to see his transfer. Harding presumably panicked and ran away from the police. Officers shot at him as he ran, then, in a video that has circulated widely, stood around him as he bled to death.

Mendell Plaza is directly across the street from the Joseph P. Lee recreation center and the Bayview Opera House, some of the main neighborhood venues for entertainment and community gatherings. This street that divides the plaza from the opera house and rec center- Oakdale- is the cut-off for the stay-away order, so both Keith and Benzo asked Judge Benson to specify whether these locations were included in the stay-away. 

After studying a map of the area, Judge Benson concluded that the opera house and rec center are outside the bounds of the stay-away order. 

“We just did an event a few weekends ago where we fed over 100 people at that location,” said Benzo to the judge. “This order will prevent me from serving the community in the way that I do, as well as providing entertainment and education for the community.”

According to Benson, there’s a chance that the stay-away condition will revoked or altered when it is brought up again at Benzo’s SWAP hearing, scheduled for June 8. 

Keith said of the sentence, “It’s not bad. I was working for probation, not jail time.”

However, she still plans to appeal, in large part due to what she sees as crucial evidence that was excluded from the trial surrounding Benzo’s history with the officers Fry and Norment. 

According to Keith, the jury didn’t hear evidence about “racist and unprofessional things” that the officers said to Benzo on occasions leading up to the incident.

“They deliberated for a long time- four days. And what I heard from the jury was that they though police were baiting him, and didn’t condone the police behavior, but they thought Debray’s reaction was too much under the circumstances,” said Keith.

But Keith said those circumstances include a long history of police harassing Benzo.

“It wasn’t a one-time thing," she said. "And we have witnesses ready to testify to that.”

As for Benzo, he’s relieved not to be serving jail time, but wary of many of the conditions. 

“They gave me a stay-away order, which they usually don’t give unless you’re caught dealing drugs,” Benzo told the Guardian.

“It will drastically affect my life. Now I can’t even organize in the community.”

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