Inmate challenges plea of guilty in '96 murder

Uruguayan says he didn't know of right to consul in murder trial

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 19 2005 2:01 p.m. MDT

Jorge Martin Benvenuto, the man whose "thrill killing" took a teenage boy's life and seriously injured a teenage girl, now wants to withdraw his guilty plea because Benvenuto alleges he was not told he had the right to contact the Uruguayan consul after his arrest.

Benvenuto, who faced the death penalty, pleaded guilty in 1998 to capital murder for fatally gunning down Zachary Snarr and attempting to kill Yvette Rodier. The plea bargain resulted in a sentence of life in prison without parole.

A scheduling conference on Benvenuto's post-conviction petition for habeas corpus is set for today before 3rd District Judge Dino Himonas.

Defense attorney Grant "Bill" Morrison, who was hired by Benvenuto's family, said there is a provision in the 1963 Vienna Convention signed by the United States and other countries, including Uruguay, for such notification.

"The United States invariably insists on doing that for our nationals when they're abroad. When they are arrested, the embassy representative is there," Morrison said.

Morrison said this appears to be a "clear-cut violation" in Benvenuto's case because he wasn't informed of this right and because of that, he didn't contact the consul.

Benvenuto, who was 19 at the time, was legally in the United States on a visa.

The very thought of more court hearings for Benvenuto has Sy Snarr, Zachary Snarr's mother, reeling.

"When I first heard about it, I felt I had been kicked in the stomach," Sy Snarr said. "I guess he doesn't want to be in prison anymore. Well, I don't want to go to the cemetery anymore."

The family and prosecutors, who originally sought the death penalty, were satisfied with the sentence of life in prison without parole.

"To have all this dredged up again to me is just unthinkable," Sy Snarr said. "I'm not even sleeping now."

Zachary Snarr, an award-winning photographer who was 18 when he died, had gone to take photos of the moon rising above Little Dell Reservoir. He was accompanied by his friend, Yvette Rodier, then also 18, whose married name now is Evans.

Prosecutors say Benvenuto shot Snarr in the head as part of a "thrill killing" and then pumped two more bullets into him. Prosecutors also say Benvenuto shot Rodier three times, but she survived her severe injuries.

Thomas Brunker, of the Utah Attorney General's Office, has filed a motion to dismiss Benvenuto's petition, arguing it is too late to make the claim.

The most a consul can do is assure a person's rights are not violated and ensure he has a lawyer to represent him. Benvenuto had five lawyers, Brunker said.

Benvenuto had four legal defenders who represented him during the plea process, but he later dismissed them, got a private lawyer and then claimed he had been depressed when he entered his guilty plea. That motion was denied on the district court level, it was appealed to the Utah Supreme Court and his conviction was unanimously upheld.

Brunker said a petition such as the latest one Benvenuto has filed would ordinarily go to the district judge who handled it, but 3rd District Judge Anne Stirba is deceased, so it has been assigned to Himonas.

Prosecutors hope the petition will be dismissed at the district court level. But what- ever Himonas decides can be appealed to a higher court.

Robert Stott, of the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office who handled the original case, said even if Benvenuto is allowed to withdraw his guilty plea, the original charges would still stand and Benvenuto could possibly face the death penalty.

Morrison, Benvenuto's lawyer, said his client is aware of these possibilities.

"That's his choice," he said. "He's aware of the risks."

Meanwhile, Sy Snarr is grappling with feelings she thought she had put to rest through her faith, her family, therapy and supportive people in the community.

"I was consumed with my anger and grief to the point where I couldn't live, I couldn't enjoy the rest of my family. I had to let that go because I wanted to be happy again," she said.

She reached a stage where she could forget Benvenuto, focus on loving her family and cherishing memories of Zach, who would be 27 now.

Benvenuto's renewed efforts to gain his freedom has upset her family and friends, as well as those of Rodier (Evans), who has a family of her own and is attending law school.

With pain and rage flooding back, Sy Snarr said she must hold on to her confidence in the criminal justice system to do the right thing.

"He says his . . . rights were violated," she said. "If anybody's rights were violated, it was Zachary's."


E-mail: lindat@desnews.com

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