Man says co-defendant set him up in 2005 murder for hire case
BRENTWOOD - A North Hampton man pushing for a new trial in the murder-for-hire killing of Jack Reid is claiming that he was set up by a co-defendant who later became a star witness for state prosecutors.
Susan Kent, the sister of Robin Knight, 61, testified on Thursday that she received a phone call from her brother while he was being held at the Rockingham County jail three years ago awaiting trial.
"He was very upset about something another inmate had told him, (one) who had a conversation with another person involved in the case," Kent testified.
That other person involved in the murder was Michael Benton, according to Kent.
Benton is serving a 33-years-to-life prison sentence for bludgeoning to death Reid, 57, of Derry with a three-pound sledgehammer.
Knight, who was convicted of accomplice to first-degree murder, is contending that his lawyers were ineffective at his 2009 trial and hadn't fully investigated possible defenses as promptly as they should have.
Knight was among five men convicted in the 2005 murder.
Thursday's hearing in Rockingham County Superior Court brought out dozens of supporters for Knight and served as a painful replay for the Reid family.
Ginny Filippone, the mother of Reid's two youngest children, came to the hearing with her children Jack Reid Jr. and Megan Reid to watch Knight's latest bid to have his conviction overturned.
"We hope the outcome remains the same," Filippone said outside of the courtroom. "We have faith in the Attorney General's Office. It's too bad that this is something we keep facing."
Assistant Attorney General Michael Lewis called into question Kent's testimony that she e-mailed and called her brother's former lead attorney, Stephen Jeffco, about the information relayed to her by her brother while he was in jail.
"To be clear, you have no email record whatsoever with Attorney Jeffco and his office and you said you promised you would do everything in your power to make sure (your brother) was free," Lewis said. "So that didn't include saving e-mail correspondence?"
Kent testified she no longer had e-mail messages to Jeffco's office because she has since switched e-mail accounts but added she is still trying to get copies of them.
Benton, according to Kent, had an exchange in county jail with Henry Bellemare, a one-time cellmate of Knight's who later testified for the state.
Knight's new attorney Ted Lothstein argued on Thursday that Jeffco and his former law partner Harry Starbranch only began their attack of Bellemare's testimony some 16 months after receiving roughly 40,000 documents and other evidence handed over by the state.
Bellemare, who has been in and out of jail since 2001, testified that Knight had divulged details about the murder that were not publicly known. Lothstein maintains that Knight's former lawyers should have exploited Bellemare's criminal background, which includes a witness tampering charge filed in 2007 that was later dropped by county prosecutors.
"He tried to frame an innocent man for a crime he didn't commit," Lothstein said. "If you are a trial lawyer - that is the holy grail of impeachment evidence."
Senior Assistant Attorney General Janice Rundles argued that Bellemare underwent a detailed cross examination by the defense about his criminal past.
Rundles said Jeffco and Starbranch were essentially "boxed in" to a theory that Knight knew he was setting up Reid, who was to be tied up, beaten and terrorized, but not murdered. That's because Knight sat down with investigators for three proffer meetings with state police in an effort to reach a plea deal, which ultimately broke down, according to Rundles.
During those interviews, Knight acknowledged he knew Reid was going to die that day, according to prosecutors. Knight's initial statements to state police broke open the case against his former boss - multimillionaire businessman John Brooks of Las Vegas. Brooks, once a prominent business leader in New Hampshire, was convicted in 2008 of capital murder, but a jury decided to spare him from the death penalty.
He is serving life in prison without parole.
Chief Justice Tina Nadeau said before she reaches a decision, she will give prosecutors 30 days to respond to other arguments filed by Lothstein on Thursday.