Henry Lee Bennet

Henry Lee Bennett was sentenced on Tuesday during a hearing before Circuit Court Judge Derek C. Swope at Mercer County Courthouse on Tuesday.

PRINCETON — A Mercer County man sentenced Tuesday for the first-degree sexual assault of a 3-year-old girl learned that he will have to serve 50 years in prison before he is eligible for parole.

Henry Vincent Bennett, 27, of Bluefield was brought Tuesday before Circuit Court Judge Derek Swope for sentencing and a motion for a new trial.

Swope denied the motion for a new trial and, after noting the problems the child could suffer later in life, sentenced Bennett to a term of 25 to 100 years for each of his two first-degree sexual assault charges. Swope silently read a letter from the child’s maternal grandparents, who are now the child’s legal guardians, before sentencing Bennett. 

Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler said after the hearing that Bennett must serve a minimum of 50 years before he could be eligible for parole, making him 77 years old by then. He would not get time off his sentence for good behavior. The sentences are to run consecutively.

Swope also sentenced Bennett to consecutive sentences amounting to 30 to 70 years for two sexual abuse charges and two incest charges. Those would be suspended if Bennett is paroled after 50 years, Sitler said. He would then be under seven years of probation and lifetime sex offender extended supervision.

“I’m not locking him up for the rest of his life, but for the rest of his effective life,” Swope said.

Bennett was arrested in February 2018 after detectives with the Bluefield Police Department investigated statements a 3-year-old girl made to relatives and state child advocacy workers that she had been sexually abused.

In one statement, the child said that Bennett had placed his “butt on her butt.” The child also made a Play-Doh model of a penis and said it was Bennett’s “butt,” Cindy Lambert, a worker with the child advocacy organization Second Chances, testified during the trial.

While being interviewed in February 2019 by Detective J.B. Fox of the Bluefield Police Department — who is now a trooper with the West Virginia State Police — Bennett first denied sexually assaulting the 3-year-old. He later said that two nighttime incidents in his bedroom, one involving a sex toy and another involving oral sex, happened by accident after the child crawled into the bed while his wife was away in the bathroom. Recordings of the interviews were played during the trial.

After deliberating for less than half a hour, the jury found Bennett guilty on two charges of first-degree sexual assault, two charges of sexual abuse by a parent, guardian or custodian and two charges of incest.

Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Adam Wolfe also represented the state at Tuesday’s hearing.

Bennett was represented by attorneys Earl Hager and Brandon Austin. Hager said when making the motion for a new trial that Bennett’s evaluations showed that he had a low IQ of 57, and the evidence pointed out his incompetence to stand trial. Because of his mental state, he confessed to something he did not do because he believed the police would then let him go home. Bennett was also “clearly confused” when Sitler cross examined him.

Sitler said that psychological and psychiatric tests had shown that Bennett was competent to stand trial, and asked Swope to deny the new trial motion.

When Swope denied the motion, he said that Bennett had had multiple tests showing he was competent, and that under the law he was presumed competent. Sitler also noted that Bennett had chosen to testify. Under the law, he had the right not to do so.

In West Virginia, first-degree sexual assault carries a penalty of 25 to 100 years in prison. The sexual abuse charges each have a possible term of 5 to 15 years, and incest is punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison, Sitler said after Bennett was convicted.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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