21st JDC judge to retire at the end of 2015 after almost three decades on the bench _lowres

21st Judicial District Court Judge Bruce Bennett

A retired judge who raised eyebrows last week when he told a convicted Baton Rouge rapist he would consider reducing a 12-year prison term if he paid $150,000 to his victim — and if she accepted — filed a document with the court this week to explain his reasoning.

Special Judge Bruce Bennett, who sentenced Sedrick Hills on Nov. 7, says in a new 19th Judicial District Court filing that he was merely trying to empower the victim, who was 15 when she was raped in 2003. Hills was found guilty last year.

Bennett's suggestion last week of a $150,000 reparation offer caught the victim, Hills' lawyer, and the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's Office off guard.

The victim later said outside the courtroom that she was not interested in receiving any money from Hills.

"If this mitigation alternative is offensive to the victim, she simply needs to do nothing," Bennett wrote Wednesday in a filing titled "Supplemental reasons for sentencing."

"If the defendant has no funds, she need do nothing. If the defendant deposits the funds, she is at least partially empowered to control her own economic destiny and receive compensation for this reprehensible and life-changing action," he stated.

Sue Bernie, a retired longtime sex crimes prosecutor in East Baton Rouge, said Thursday the woman had already empowered herself by testifying against Hills.

"What's important for her to know is it's not the court that is empowering her. She has empowered herself," Bernie said. "She dug deep. She was empowered when she had the courage to confront him and tell the jury."

Bernie had said last week that she could not recall a judge ever making such an offer, though she had been approached previously by defense attorneys trying to make restitution to a victim of sexual violence. She said she found such an offer coming from a judge unusual and surprising.

Bennett, who retired from the 21st Judicial District Court at the end of 2015 after nearly three decades on the bench, was serving as an ad hoc judge in the 19th JDC when he sentenced Hills. His appointment ended at the end of last week.

Hills' victim, who is now 31, spoke at his sentencing and asked that he be sentenced to at least 16 years — the number of years since the rape. She said "this experience has left me broken."

After sentencing Hills, 44, to a dozen years, Bennett stunned the courtroom and said he would consider reducing that term if Hills were to pay his victim $150,000 and if the woman were in favor of such action.

"This will not be considered to be an extortionary offer," Bennett stressed at the time.

Outside the courtroom, the woman responded to the proposed monetary offer by saying, "I don't think money is going to provide any restitution for what he's done."

On Thursday, District Attorney Hillar Moore said in a statement that he has since spoken with the victim about the judge's offer.

"She believes that the court's ruling and reasoning was sincerely intended to empower and to help her. However she feels that the way the sentence is structured implies that the defendants financial position could buy his way out of a part of his sentence," said Moore, whose office had objected to the 12-year sentence.

"She never requested any monetary compensation only incarceration. She also believes that the sentence structure perpetuates the income disparity issue in the criminal justice system. This sentence puts her in the personal dilemma of choosing time versus money, which is a tough position for her given the high human cost that she has suffered and will continue to suffer. She wanted 16 years of incarceration, which reflected the years that she has endured since her attack," Moore said.

Bennett, in his filing Wednesday, said a pre-sentence investigation report hinted at the possibility that Hills had been injured in a truck accident.

"I do not know if he has a civil case pending. But if the defendant reaps a large amount of money, it seems unfair to me that he should emerge from prison with a windfall while the victim has received no compensation for her emotional injuries sustained as a result of the crime, as I have seen happen in so many other cases," he said.

If Hills were to deposit $150,000 with the District Attorney's Office and his victim decided to accept the reparations, Bennett said he would have the discretion "to re-sentence the defendant to perhaps a modest reduction of time based upon the remorse exhibited to the victim and all other relevant circumstances."

Even though the victim indicated at Hills' sentencing only a desire that he be incarcerated, Bennett said at some point in the future she "may wish for or may desperately need financial compensation for the psychological injuries, distress, humiliation, and embarrassment she has suffered and, no doubt, will continue to suffer in the future."

"In my view, justice requires that the victim be afforded another opportunity to pursue this alternative avenue of seeking a more satisfactory form of personal and social justice," he added.

By his proposing the monetary offer and retaining jurisdiction over the case, Bennett said the victim "is now empowered in some measure by this court to control the progress of this defendant's punishment and her own future."

Bennett stressed that the choice is hers and hers alone, and said the option is neither a form of bribery by the defendant nor extortion by the victim.

"Some may criticize this option as a form of the `rich buying justice.' This also is not true — the court has no information that the defendant is wealthy, only that he may have a windfall coming in the future," he added.

To those who say that "it looks bad to the public," Bennett said payment of restitution "is and has always been a mitigating matter considered by courts and district attorneys every day across the land as a part of the process of plea negotiation.

"There is no reason courts should not be allowed to consider such a factor even after sentence …," he said.

Hills' attorney, Robert Tucker Sr., declined comment Thursday on Bennett's filing.

Hills' sentencing was delayed for more than a year after a black female juror alleged that a white male juror made racist remarks about Hills, who is black. State District Judge Trudy White granted Hills a new trial this year based on the allegation, but a state appeals court threw out her ruling and ordered a hearing on the alleged juror misconduct.

Bennett ruled last month that the juror's allegation was not corroborated by her fellow jurors, each of whom had testified at the court-ordered hearing. He refused to grant Hills a new trial.

Hills was formally charged in 2014 after DNA evidence linked him to the sexual assault, Bennett said.

He was convicted in August 2018 of forcible rape and another sexual assault-related charge. The verdicts were 11-1 and 10-2, respectively. The jury consisted of eight white people and four black people.

Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.