Tom Benson’s attorneys put their final witness on the stand Thursday in a defense case intended to rebut the mental incompetence allegations — levied by estranged relatives of the Saints and Pelicans owner — that could strip him of his power to oversee his business affairs.
Dr. John Thompson, one of three psychiatrists who evaluated Benson earlier this year, spent about 1½ hours under questioning from Benson’s attorneys before the trial recessed for the day.
Thompson will return to the stand Friday morning for continued questioning from Benson’s attorneys and then cross-examination from attorneys for Benson’s daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc.
The defense is expected to rest Friday without calling Benson to the stand, said lead attorney Phillip Wittmann, though he left open the possibility.
“Unless we change our mind tonight,” Wittmann said before leaving the courthouse Thursday.
Thompson was one of two witnesses to testify on the trial’s seventh day. Benson’s estate attorney, Paul Cordes, was questioned for about 2½ hours before Thompson was called.
Their testimony, like all evidence in the closed-door trial, is under seal by Judge Kern Reese’s order to protect Benson’s medical information.
Benson’s daughter and grandchildren have asked the court to find that he did not have the mental capacity to decide several months ago to dismiss them from their roles in his business empire and shut them out of a new succession plan that will leave his sports franchises and other assets in Louisiana and Texas to his third wife, Gayle Benson, upon his death.
In court documents, the jilted heirs have said Gayle Benson has manipulated and exerted undue influence over the twice-widowed Benson. They also have argued that the billionaire’s mental health has been deteriorating.
Randy Smith, an attorney for the trio, has said repeatedly that Renee, Rita and Ryan have brought their case because they care about Benson’s well-being.
The next steps in the trial are rebuttal by the relatives’ side and then closing arguments. Smith said he will call one or two rebuttal witnesses. He declined to identify them.
Smith would not say whether he would — or could — call Benson to testify during the rebuttal period. “He certainly has the right to testify. The question is whether he has the right not to,” Smith said.
Benson, who has attended every day of the trial, has said he is ready to testify if called.
He arrived at court Thursday using a walker to get around instead of a cane and assistance from his attorney, as he had done since the trial began. He joked to reporters that he’d rather be seeing them at Saints training camp than outside the courtroom.
While the trial is expected to conclude on Friday, Reese is not expected to rule from the bench. A spokesman for the court said the judge will take the testimony under advisement. He has not provided a timeline for his decision.
Smith said Reese has seemed eager to bring the matter to an end.
“I’ve seen judges take anywhere from an hour to months,” Smith said. “But I think Judge Reese has expressed that he wants to move this case along. ... I don’t think it will linger for a long time waiting for a decision.”
The defense case has included five witnesses, beginning June 6 with Saints President Dennis Lauscha. He was followed by Dr. Kenneth Sakauye and Gayle Benson on Wednesday, and Cordes and Thompson on Thursday.
Benson’s team has said in court documents that he is perfectly capable of overseeing the business empire he began building in the 1960s and that he made the decision to cut his family members out of his business and his life because they were bad at their jobs and rude to his wife.
Smith presented seven witnesses during the trial’s first week. All three of the relatives, as well as a former nurse, a former business associate and psychiatrist Dr. Ted Bloch III took the stand last week. A former housekeeper was heard via video link.