In late July, 36-year-old Christopher Craig Bennett pleaded no contest to seduction in the alleged sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl at Waldenwoods resort in Hartland in 2009. Bennett was a park ranger at the resort at the time, although it is unclear as to whether he is still employed. Bennett was initially charged with two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, which prosecutors dismissed in exchange for his no contest plea.
The alleged victim was camping with her family at the time, who had been members of the resort for many years according to her father. He said the family had always respected the park rangers, and that when Bennett invited his daughter to go along with him on patrol, she agreed. Her father alleges that Bennett raped her on the grounds of the resort.
News reports indicate Bennett was sentenced on August 30 to four months in the Livingston County Jail after pleading no contest to seduction. He also faces two years of probation.
Third-degree criminal sexual conduct involves penetration, often referred to as “rape” when the victim is of a certain age (between 13 and 16 years old). Even if the alleged victim consents to engage in sexual relations, it is a crime due to the fact that minors cannot give consent in Michigan. Depending on the circumstances, an individual convicted of third-degree CSC may face up to 15 years in prison, and will be required to register as a sex offender for life.
Pleading no contest to a criminal charge does not mean the accused individual is admitting guilt, however for sentencing purposes it is treated as such. Had Bennett pleaded not guilty and gone to trial, he would have faced much harsher punishment had he been found guilty.
Defendants take a risk when they decide to go to trial, unfortunately. Many of those accused of sexual assault, rape, or other offenses plead no contest or guilty out of fear they will be found guilty by a jury, even when they’re innocent. It isn’t unusual for a person charged with a sex crime to agree to a plea deal in order to avoid the severe punishment they could face if convicted, regardless of whether they’re guilty or innocent.
In criminal cases the defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, in too many cases there is a clear lack of “hard proof” or compelling evidence, however jurors often have sympathy for the alleged victim or are swayed by whoever tells the most convincing story when on the witness stand. Many innocent people sit behind bars today for crimes they didn’t commit. Even worse, some are labeled sex offenders for life which impacts employment, where a person may live, how they are viewed by society, and more.
Is our criminal justice system broken? Do those accused of a crime really get a “fair” trial?