After a four-day break, Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson’s mental competency trial resumed Wednesday morning.
Benson’s lawyers were slated to continue making their case that the 87-year-old billionaire is in good enough shape to keep running a business empire he started building in the 1960s, despite claims to the contrary by his estranged relatives.
The first witness Benson’s lawyers called Wednesday was Dr. Kenneth Sakauye, who served on a three-psychiatrist panel that examined the Saints and Pelicans owner prior to the trial. Sakauye spent about two hours on the stand before Wednesday’s lunch break, when he was under cross examination by lawyers representing Benson’s relatives.
Gayle Benson, the twice-widowed Benson’s third wife, arrived at the courthouse Wednesday afternoon. She began testifying about 2:15 p.m., once Sakauye finished on the stand after a total of about three hours on the stand.
Gayle Benson did not make any statements to reporters waiting for her outside New Orleans civil district courthouse, aside from politely greeting them.
Benson’s mental competency trial began behind closed doors June 1, and it’s pitted him against his daughter, Renee Benson; and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc.
Renee, Rita and Ryan testified during the first week of the trial, which concluded Friday. Once a high-ranking executive for her grandfather’s sports franchises, Rita testified for more than eight hours, by far the most time any witness called in the case at this point has spent on the stand.
Others witnesses called by lawyers for Renee, Rita and Ryan included Dr. Ted Bloch III, whom they had evaluate their family patriarch; a former Benson business associate; and a nurse. There was also video testimony from an ex-Benson housekeeper.
The only witness Benson’s side called during the first week was Saints and Pelicans President Dennis Lauscha, who spent 3 1/2 hours on the stand Friday before Judge Kern Reese adjourned the trial until Wednesday morning.
The rift in Benson’s family hit the public light when he announced in January that he no longer wanted Renee, Rita and Ryan from having anything to do with his various businesses in Louisiana and Texas. Gayle Benson is now in position to take control over the Saints, Pelicans and other business assets owned by her husband when he dies.
In reaction to being cut off, Renee, Rita and Ryan filed a lawsuit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court seeking to have Benson declared mentally unfit to execute his own business decisions.
Other lawsuits in New Orleans’ federal court and in Texas have followed. They are pending and mostly focus on various family trust funds.
Before the mental competency trial started, Benson submitted to a court-mandated medical evaluation performed by three psychiatrists: John Thompson, Bloch and Sakauye.
Thompson is the chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Tulane University, and he was chosen for the trial by Benson. It is possible he will testify after Gayle Benson does.
Bloch is a veteran geriatric psychiatrist based out of New Orleans, and he was selected to participate in the trial by Renee, Rita and Ryan. Sakauye is the co-chairman of the University of Tennessee’s Health Science Center’s Department of Psychiatry in Memphis, and he was picked by Thompson and Bloch.
For Gayle Benson’s part, while it is not known precisely what she would testify about, the lawsuit being tried accuses her of exerting undue influence on Benson before he severed ties with Renee, Rita and Ryan. Benson contends that all decisions pertaining to his daughter and grandchildren have been his alone.
Heading into court Wednesday, the lead lawyer for Renee, Rita and Ryan — Randy Smith — said he estimated Benson’s trial would last “another three or four days.” In response to a reporter’s question, Smith said he expected Gayle Benson would testify that “everything is just peachy” whenever she takes the stand.
It remains unclear whether Benson himself will take the stand. He has said he is ready to testify if called to do so.
After Wednesday’s portion of the trial concludes, it will pick back up at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. There will also be testimony in the trial all day Friday.