Testimony in the trial to determine whether Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson has the mental acuity to continue making his own business decisions turned from emotional to clinical Thursday, as his estranged relatives ceded the witness stand to a geriatric psychiatrist they chose to evaluate the 87-year-old businessman earlier this year.
Dr. Ted Bloch III may be the final witness called to take the stand before Randy Smith, the attorney for Benson’s daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, rests his case. Smith said he hasn’t decided if he will call another witness after Bloch and gave no indication who that witness might be.
Tom Benson’s relatives are asking Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese to declare their family patriarch mentally incapable of presiding over his business affairs.
Benson’s defense team, led by attorney Phillip Wittmann, is expected to start calling witnesses sometime Friday. Wittmann would not say whether Benson will take the stand.
The trial is closed to the public, and case records have been sealed. Lawyers and witnesses are barred from discussing trial details. Despite the objection of several media outlets, Reese decided to hold the trial in secret to keep Benson’s medical information shielded from public view.
Three doctors are expected to present significant medical testimony about the mental health and capacity of Louisiana’s lone billionaire, as his relatives seek to demonstrate that he was not of sound mind when he terminated them as employees amid accusations of professional incompetence and cut them out of any role in running his sports franchises and other businesses after he dies.
Renee, Rita and Ryan contend, among other things, that Benson has been manipulated and unduly influenced by a small circle of executives and his third wife, Gayle Benson, who now stands to inherit Benson’s NFL and NBA teams and several Texas businesses.
Ryan LeBlanc, the last of the Benson relatives to testify, spent about an hour on the stand Thursday. His testimony lasted less than two hours in total and was significantly shorter than that given by both his mother and sister. Until his ouster, Ryan helped to run his grandfather’s hunting ranch and car dealerships near San Antonio.
Rita LeBlanc, who once was presented as the prospective next boss of her grandfather’s sports empire, spent eight hours on the stand Tuesday and Wednesday. Renee Benson, who once stood to inherit controlling ownership shares in the Saints, underwent four hours of questioning Monday.
Thursday’s trial was dominated by testimony from Bloch, one of three doctors who — on Reese’s order — evaluated Benson and submitted their findings to the court. The others are Dr. Kenneth Sakauye, of the University of Tennessee, and Dr. John Thompson, of Tulane University.
Bloch was picked by the spurned relatives and Thompson by Benson’s camp. Sakauye was selected by Thompson and Bloch.
Bloch, a geriatric psychiatrist first certified with the American Board of Psychiatry in 1995, spent more than six hours testifying Thursday and will return to the stand Friday morning to continue being cross-examined by Benson’s attorneys.
“I think it was a very important day,” Smith said. “Dr. Bloch’s an expert in geriatric psychiatry, so I think his testimony was very important.”
Reports and testimony from the three psychiatrists are likely to factor greatly into how Reese rules in the case. Experts have said it is typically difficult to persuade a judge to declare someone incapacitated and that such decisions require more than observations and claims from the parties seeking the action.
In this case, Renee, Rita and Ryan have said Benson suffers from memory lapses, has confessed to having “difficulty thinking” and forgets details like the name of the current U.S. president — claims Benson’s attorneys have called “completely meritless.”
Wittmann would not say whom he intends to call to the stand. Saints coach Sean Payton told WWL-TV on Thursday there was no chance he would be called to testify.
The trial had been expected to conclude on Friday, but that seemed unlikely Thursday afternoon at the conclusion of the fourth day of testimony. Should it stretch into next week, the proceedings will begin again on Wednesday.