Attorney General Marty Jackley this morning released his full response to the open records request filed by reporter Bob Mercer, seeking access to the investigation into Richard Benda’s death.
Mercer had argued that “news accounts and Internet blogs have raised questions about the death” and thus that Jackley should release the Benda reports to “allow citizens to judge for themselves the depth and scope of the processes that lead to the conclusion that Benda killed himself.”
Jackley appears up-to-date on some of that coverage and did not appear amused:
Considering the involvement of of federal, state and local law enforcement authorities, there has been absolutely no credible facts or evidence calling into question either: (1) the forensic pathologist report, or (2) the Attorney General’s released information that the death investigation reconstruction and forensic testimony demonstrated no foul play and were consistent with the suicide ruling. Internet blogs, specifically excluding yours, that speculate and provide misinformation about cause of death ranging from heart attacks to gunshot wounds to the head, and otherwise misquote that Attorney General’s written releases, fail to provide justification for any release of documents.
For a sample of what Jackley and Mercer were responding to, Cory Heidelberger’s Madville Times blog highlights a comment from Sam Kephart questioning the suicide ruling:
I know, like, and support Marty Jackley and I’m sure he is in exquisite pain over this… divided between what he knows is the right thing to do, which is to rip this case WIDE open with no holds barred and no favors done, versus having to be cautious to protect his pecking order status within the State GOP, which would suggest (or lean on him) that he give the benefit of the doubt to his political seniors… which I’m sure is going on behind the scenes.
Has it occurred to anyone of our senior elected officials that maybe, just maybe, Chinese Mafia (Triad) money was somehow involved and scrubbed through this meat packing deal? It wouldn’t be the first time.
Like the Russian Mob, these Chinese boys can play rough.
Even if Benda did commit suicide, which I don’t believe, then one must ask what drove him to do it and why? What did he know or fear that was so oppressive to his future prospects that he would take his life? Duh…
I’ve heard from plenty of readers who themselves are skeptical about Benda’s death, skepticism focused on two things: the unusually long delay before the release of the death investigation, and the fact that Benda’s fatal wound was a shotgun blast to the abdomen — neither the weapon nor location usually chosen for suicide attempts via firearm.
Not having seen the full investigation report (Mercer and another reporter to be determined will get to do so in private and report on its findings), I can’t say for certain whether there’s any reason to doubt Jackley’s conclusion.
My analysis, based on the facts:
There are three possible ways Benda could have died: murder, suicide, or accident. Presuming the facts are accurate — and the coroner’s conclusion that Benda died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen is consistent with the report of an eyewitness that Benda had a “bullet hole in the side” — the ruling of suicide is plausible (which is not the same thing as being obvious or self-evident).
Benda’s death certificate shed light on the manner of his death: he apparently went out to a copse of trees, secured his shotgun to a tree, and pushed the trigger with a stick. If one were to shoot oneself with a shotgun — an unwieldy weapon to turn on oneself — that seems a likely manner to do so.
The abdomen wound certainly is unusual, though it’s not known whether Benda intended to shoot himself there. It’s possible he was aiming for somewhere else on his body, but given the awkward arrangement involving a shotgun secured to a tree and pushed with a stick, it’s possible the barrel was jostled at the key moment.
The time delay, as my colleague John Hult pointed out, was highly unusual.
Here’s where my natural skepticism comes up short, though: If Benda didn’t commit suicide, how did he die? and why would the authorities report something different?
As said above, the only alternatives would be murder or accident. If the death was a hunting accident (as Benda’s brother-in-law insisted it had to be at the time), why would Jackley cover that up? While a suicide may have more social stigma than an accident, nothing about the manner of Benda’s death changes anything about any wrongdoing he may have done while in office. So why would even this hypothetical conspiratorial Marty Jackley take the drastic move of falsifying an official report (which would involve securing the cooperation of multiple people, any of whom could break the whole fiction open by speaking) for no significant effect?
Theories about East Asian mobsters murdering Benda could at least provide a slightly more plausible reason for falsifying the report — to avoid contaminating a delicate investigation into organized crime by letting the mafia know how much authorities know. But why wait a full month and then release a false report? Authorities withhold information from the public all the time because of ongoing investigations, and there’s no reason Jackley couldn’t have done so here for even longer than the month it took for the report to be released.
Few of the Benda skeptics out there seem to have anything to go on other than distrust of Jackley. That’s their prerogative, but whatever doubts someone has about the suicide ruling, the other alternatives seem even less likely given the facts on hand.
Hopefully media examination of the investigation file will clear things up for good.