- PHOTO COURTESY CHARITY LEE /BEN EASTER
On a sweltering Monday evening in May, Charity Lee sat near a makeshift pulpit inside the Greater Faith Church on the city’s East Side. Before her sat 10 children whose lives had been forever changed by the sins of their parents.
The kids stared at the concrete floor and fidgeted nervously until Lee broke the silence. In her distinctive Southern drawl, she cracked jokes about her bulging eight-month pregnant belly. First the kids giggled. Then they began to talk back. Eventually, they told Lee why they were there.
One 4-year-old boy didn’t know why his father is in prison, how long he’s been there, or if he’ll ever get to see him again outside the confines of a visitation room. Another 9-year-old boy explained that his dad “used to do everything with me, we used to play every day.” I only heard him mutter the word “prison” before his voice trailed off into a faint, indecipherable whisper.
“I bet you miss them,” Lee said. “And I bet sometimes you’re angry about them, sometimes scared about what happened, confused.”
Lee was there because six years ago the sins of her teenage son forever altered the course of her life. It was then that 13-year-old Paris Bennett beat, choked, and then fatally stabbed Ella, his 4-year-old sister, while Lee was away at work.
Lee’s life has been shaped by murder. She’s both the daughter of a father who was murdered and child to the mother accused of the crime. She’s also the mother of a murdered daughter and to a murdering son. Perhaps due to the nature of intra-family violence — where any line dividing families of victims and offenders quickly vanishes — Lee now says she flatly rejects any notion of justice that centers on vengeance.
“If you’re going to try to do something to prevent violence, or to mitigate its impact after the fact, you have to move away from this position of fear, revenge, and hatred,” Lee told me.
Lee still has her own struggles. She fears her son, and last year asked a judge to send him to an adult prison to serve out the rest of his 40-year sentence. But while she struggles to love him, she’s been an open advocate for the rights and better treatment for Paris and more than 2 million Americans like him locked up in prison. Paris’ crime fixed Lee’s stance against the death penalty, and along with sharing her story in jails and prisons across the country, she regularly visits Texas’ death row. Last year, she was arrested alongside 13 other anti-death penalty activists on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, protesting capital punishment on the 35th anniversary of the Court’s landmark decision to reinstate it.
But Lee also speaks across the country advocating for victims of violent crime with her non-profit ELLA Foundation, named after her murdered daughter. Since Ella’s death, she’s helped counsel families of both murder victims and murderers.
“Violent crime rips families apart,” she told me. ‘There are no sides. Just a whole lot of suffering for anybody connected to it.”
Lee is now dedicated to addressing another aspect of violent crime’s collateral damage — children of incarcerated parents. Last month, she began a therapeutic writing workshop with local children of parents sentenced to prison, planning to publish a book of their stories to circulate around Texas jails and prisons.
To the kids gathered at Greater Faith Church last month, Lee said, “I bet y’all have some great, important stories to tell.”
Then she told them her own.
“I have someone I love very much who’s in prison,” she said. “My son is in prison. Six years ago, he killed his little sister.” The room was silent.
“He’s going to be in prison for a very long time.”
Violence followed Charity Lee from the very beginning.
In the summer of 1980, when Lee was just six years old, police found the body of her father, Bobby Bennett Jr., in his home outside Atlanta, Ga., shot several times in the back of the head; police thought it looked like an execution.
Lee’s mother, Kyla Bennett, soon became a prime suspect in the murder. Although the couple had been separated for some time, they remarried just 57 hours before the murder during a whirlwind trip to Las Vegas, Nev. Lee’s mother stood to take over the family’s lucrative trucking business if anything happened to Bennett Jr.
Authorities eventually charged Kyla Bennett with hiring a hit man to kill her husband. During the course of the widely covered and sensational trial, prosecutors put on evidence that in the months before her husband’s murder, Lee’s mother had discussed arranging his killing with a part-time truck driver.
A jury later acquitted her.
By the time Lee was a teenager, she was hooked on heroin. At age 17, her mother finally kicked her out. “She gave me $100 and told me I could either use it to find help or to score and find a place to overdose.”
Lee compromised, spending half on drugs and the rest on gas to get to a halfway house in Chattanooga, Tenn. She was clean for about a year when she enrolled at the University of Tennessee. But Lee still felt the awful cravings. “I was miserable. I kept thinking that it just should not be this hard.”
Lee made a deal with herself. If she still felt dismal in three months, she’d commit suicide by overdosing. About a month before her self-imposed deadline, Lee found out she was pregnant with Paris.
“Paris changed everything,” she said. “I mean, he saved my life.”
In the years that followed, Lee stayed clean. She lived briefly in Alabama, where she met Jonathan Smith and the two had a daughter, Ella. Their relationship soon fizzled, and in 2005 she moved the kids to Dallas to be closer to her mother, who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Lee had been working long nights to get a concert promotions business off the ground when she relapsed on cocaine, something that deeply troubled Paris, who was then 11 years old.
“It was like a good six-month period I was back using,” Lee said. “I know it had an impact on him. … It’s the one thing, that huge regret I wish I could go back and change.”
Lee tried moving back in with Ella’s father in Alabama, but the relationship again turned sour. Shortly thereafter, she brought the kids to live at her mother’s sprawling ranch in Seymour, Tex. There, things got even more chaotic for the small family.
“It was just like this perfect shit-storm,” Lee recalled. Her dysfunctional relationship with her mother reached a breaking point. Meanwhile, Lee was still struggling to get clean.
“I believe there’s a moment in all our lives when we realize our parents are human, that they let us down and we become disappointed,” Lee said. “I believe that was Paris’ moment with me.”
One day, while still living at the Seymour ranch, Paris was playing with Ella and another little girl when he broke a toy they were playing with. When Ella got upset, Lee scolded her son and put him in time out.
She had stepped away for a minute when one of the housekeepers shouted that Paris had grabbed a kitchen knife and bolted out the door. When Lee and her mother finally tracked him down, Paris was waving the knife at them. His grandmother managed to grab the blade, and Lee wrapped her arms around him. “He just collapsed into this heap on the floor,” she recalled. “We didn’t know what was wrong with him.”
Lee admitted Paris to the Red River Hospital, a nearby psychiatric facility. She grew frustrated with the doctors after having him there for a week, claiming that they refused to communicate with her, which led her to believe that they were doing little to assess or treat Paris. The facility gave Lee some basic discharge papers when she picked up Paris, and the family moved west to Abilene for a fresh start.
It was more than a year later, after Paris had murdered Ella, that the full file from Red River was entered into Paris’ record and Lee read it for the first time. She was shocked to see what doctors had written: “He is obsessed about shooting and killing … homicidal/suicidal ideation.”
A 21-year-old Hardin Simmons University student was babysitting Paris and Ella the night of February 4, 2007, as Charity Lee worked her shift at a Buffalo Wild Wings near Abilene.
In a statement she later gave to police, the babysitter recounted taking the kids out for Chinese food and watching the cartoon version of Alice and Wonderland before Ella went to sleep and Paris retired to his room to finish homework. Crime scene photos show Paris’ outline for an essay on the Trojan War – “Paris kills Achilles/ Menelaus returns home with Helen/ Paris dies,” he wrote.
Sometime around 10 p.m., Paris convinced the babysitter she could go home. It was after that, according to detectives, that Paris grabbed a kitchen knife and walked into the bedroom where Ella was sleeping. He then proceeded to beat, choke, and stab his 4-year-old sister 17 times — an autopsy report noted a cluster of deep stab wounds on Ella’s chest, along with numerous cuts to her fingers, wrists, and forearms, indicating she fought back.
Paris then called a friend to say he’d hurt his sister, a call police say lasted nearly six minutes. When he hung up, he waited two more minutes before calling 911 to report the murder.
Paris told officers he attacked Ella while in the throes of a vivid hallucination, that he was sleeping next to Ella when he woke to a terrifying scene: a demonic version of his sister, engulfed in flames, that was laughing maniacally at him. From their first reports, however, detectives doubted Paris’ version of things.
When he called 911, a dispatcher told Paris to move Ella from the bed, which was covered in blood, to the floor to perform CPR. “He was very resistant at first, but appeared to later comply with her request,” according to the report from one detective who listened to the dispatcher’s call. On the call, the dispatcher tells Paris to give Ella 30 chest compressions at a time. On tape, Paris can be heard counting out the compressions.
The detective, who responded to the scene of the crime, noted that there was almost no blood on the floor, and doubted Paris even attempted chest compressions “due to the fact that Ella was lying on her side and the fact that she had stab wounds on her back that would have leaked blood onto the floor during these compressions.”
One Abilene police officer who interviewed Paris the night of the murder wrote in his report, “At times during the interview process, Paris would appear as if he were attempting to cry; however, he did not appear to be sincere with these attempts. At no time did he have tears come to his eyes.”
Lee tried to believe Paris’ version of events. That changed when she got Ella’s autopsy report weeks later. “Before reading that, I had no idea Ella had suffered as much as she did,” she told me. Then, she read reports that detectives had discovered semen on the bed where they found Ella and inside the shorts Paris was wearing that night.
On her next visit to the nearby juvenile justice center, where Paris was being held before his sentencing and transfer to a youth correctional facility, Lee told her son, “I know you did this on purpose, I know you’re lying,” she recalled.
“Paris got quiet, then there was this whole shift in his demeanor,” Lee said. “It was like this whole other person took over. He just started laughing at me. He said, ‘Well it took you fucking long enough.’”
Paris grew violent when she asked about the semen detectives had found, flipping a table onto her before storming off and punching a wall, Lee says.
If what Paris did to Ella traumatized Lee, she felt further wounded by the justice system she was forced to work within.
Not only was she grieving the loss of her daughter, the victim of the crime, but she had forever lost the son she thought she had.
Meanwhile, the machinery of the criminal justice system kicked into gear — since he was 13, Paris’ case was adjudicated in juvenile, not adult, court.
“Paris’ defense attorney was, of course, concerned with getting Paris the lightest possible sentence he could,” she recalled. Meanwhile, the Taylor County district attorney was preoccupied with locking Paris up for as long as possible.
“I was stuck in the middle,” she said. “Neither side was really interested in motive … from the prosecution’s view, they had their killer, they’d get a conviction, they’d get justice.”
While Lee wanted Paris to be held accountable, “I also wanted to know what was wrong with him, why this happened, and how to help him.”
In the months following Ella’s murder, Paris’ defense attorney scared Lee away from mental health or counseling services for herself, warning her prosecutors could subpoena the files and use them against Paris in court, she claims. It wasn’t until two years later that Lee finally sought intensive counseling and was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress and major depressive disorders.
The day of Paris’ sentencing hearing, Lee didn’t know which side of the court to sit on. A bailiff grabbed a chair for her to sit in the middle aisle.
Criminal justice reformers in Texas continue to push for authorities to embrace a more nuanced approach they call restorative justice, particularly in instances of family-on-family crime.
“There’s this growing realization that our responses to crime haven’t been very effective any way you measure it, whether by rehabilitation, or recidivism, or by gauging victim’s satisfaction,” said Stephanie Frogge with University of Texas’ Institute for Restorative Justice & Restorative Dialogue. “What restorative justice suggests is that we need to look at what harm has occurred, and how do we repair that harm. The people that need to address it must include those most impacted by it: the victim, the offender, and the community.”
The idea, Frogge says, is not to create programs that supplant the existing criminal justice framework, but to incorporate services that bring more humanity to the system.
“We see cases like Charity’s, where you’ve a victim in a number of ways,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a group that lobbies the Texas Legislature for reforms. “The system right now doesn’t even know how to attempt to make a family like that whole again.”
Frogge and Yáñez-Correa lamented that a bill authored by Texas State House Rep. Ruth Jones-McClendon to expand victim-offender mediation programs for those charged with certain misdemeanor offenses died in the most recent regular legislative session.
There are only a handful of programs in Texas that currently embrace this philosophy, said Frogge, and they’re predominantly in the juvenile justice system or in schools. She pointed to a restorative justice program implemented at Ed White Middle School in San Antonio three years ago, which stresses communication among students and between teachers anytime disciplinary action is taken. UT’s Institute for Restorative Justice & Restorative Dialogue is currently reviewing data from the program to gauge how well it works.
Yáñez-Correa says such an approach could be particularly valuable if used in crimes involving family members.
Statistics compiled by the Texas Council on Family Violence show that 102 Texas women were murdered by husbands, intimate partners, boyfriends, or ex-boyfriends in 2011 — 48 children witnessed those murders, two were injured, and seven were killed. TCFV reports there were 177,938 family violence incidents across the state in 2011.
“We’re talking about cases where pre-existing relationships have been unbelievably, violently wrenched apart,” Yáñez-Correa said. “There may be some sort of need or desire for reconnection, or at least communication, because of that.”
Lee reinforced that need, telling me, “Our traditional view of the justice system, that vengeance is the way we achieve justice, is not the way all victims experience things.” She recalled going to a support meeting for parents of murdered children shortly after Ella’s death. “Before I even got a chance to tell them about Paris, that my son was the killer, they were all adamant that they would help me make sure he never got out of prison, that they’d go and protest at all of his parole hearings,” she said.
But what if he changes? “What if we find him help in the meantime?” she asked. “It was all vengeance. That’s how the system was telling them to heal from this trauma. …That’s not conducive to healing.”
At first, Paris wasn’t vocal inside youth lockup. He expressed himself only through letters and pictures. Soon enough, he began refusing to follow simple directions. Two months before his sentencing, he punched a peer several times in the face on the basketball court; the boy never fought back. Later that month, he flooded his room, and then lunged at staff that responded. Officials scolded him for making “demeaning comments to his younger peers.”
While one evaluator wrote that Paris appeared to be genuine in many of his statements during treatment, “When discussing his offense [murder] he was smiling, this causes some concern.”
Staffers reported numerous times that Paris tried to manipulate them into giving him his mother’s address in San Antonio, where she moved shortly after the murder. She does not want him to have it.
It’s clear, given some of the records Charity Lee provided the Current for review, that Paris is extremely intelligent. The year he killed his sister, he tested an IQ composite score of 141, placing him in the “Upper Extreme” range of intellectual functioning. In affidavits filed in court, teachers said things like “Paris was one of the most intelligent students I’ve taught in 27 years,” or, “I had never had a student of his intelligence.” A reading teacher told authorities Paris had a vocabulary “equal to a college graduate” when he was in just sixth grade. At his closed-doors transfer hearing to an adult prison last year, Lee says Texas Department of Juvenile Justice officials reported that Paris had hacked into the computer system while in youth lockup. An aspiring writer, he had apparently been corresponding with literary journals in New York City.
Lee won’t call her son a monster — “I detest that word,” she told me more than once. But she will call him something much more controversial: a sociopath.
Paris was evaluated by at least two different forensic psychologists after Ella’s murder, and Lee asked a third to review her son’s file. One wrote that Paris was at moderate risk for developing psychopathic traits, characteristics, and tendencies, and also wrote, “It would appear that Paris has pathological narcissism.” Lee claims the psychologist that Paris’ defense team hired called her soon after his sentencing because “ethically, he felt I should know his opinion.” She wept when the psychologist told her Paris had all the necessary traits to be labeled a psychopath (the terms sociopath and psychopath are generally used interchangeably). A third psychologist suggested that Lee move away from Texas and change her identity before Paris is eligible for parole.
The idea that psychopathic tendencies can be detected in children remains controversial. There’s no accepted standard test for psychopathy in children, and some psychologists argue that it’s almost impossible to diagnose in children or teenagers because their brains are still developing and normal behavior at those ages may be misinterpreted as psychopathic — researchers have linked psychopathic behaviors to low levels of cortisol in the brain and below-normal function in the amygdala, the portion of the brain that processes fear, shame, and remorse.
Still, a small but growing number of psychologists now say psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition that can be identified in children as young as five years old. Last year, The New York Times Magazine profiled the work of Florida International University psychologist and researcher Dan Waschbusch, who employs a combination of psychological checklists and exams to screen for what he calls “callous-unemotional” children, whose lack of affect, remorse, or empathy, he contends, put them at risk of becoming psychopaths as adults.
Lee, who’s currently finishing her master’s work in guidance and counseling, reads every study and academic article on the topic she can get her hands on.
“It’s like a series of puzzle pieces I’ve been putting together ever since Paris killed Ella,” Lee told me. At Paris’ transfer hearing last year, his attorney maintained he has a form of Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder that affects one’s ability to socialize and communicate with others, something Lee disputes. As of May, the American Psychiatric Association officially eliminated it as a distinct diagnosis.
“I know he’s dangerous, I know he’s different. I didn’t just wake up one day and think, ‘I’m going to call my son a psychopath.’ It was a hard realization to come to.”
Lee almost cut ties with Paris twice. The first time was when he filed for emancipation shortly after he was transferred to a youth correctional facility. The second time was when she read a letter Paris wrote to one of his counselors, which Lee calls “Paris’ manifesto.” In it, her son talks about murdering her daughter in vivid, troubling detail, and about his deep resentment toward his mother because of her drug use.
In it, Paris also talks about his fascination with death, and how, instead of calling a teacher, a family member, or a friend to talk about his concerns with his mother, he “settled on the morbid.”
“Another key motive to my offense,” he writes, “I wanted to see someone die.”
Lee went to see Paris shortly after reading the letter. There was a little girl nearby who had come to visit her brother. Their dynamic reminded Lee of Ella and Paris before the murder. She broke down crying and asked Paris why he didn’t just kill her.
“Goddamn it mom, just get over it already,” she recalled him saying. “It’s been almost two years already. People die all the time.”
She asked Paris why he didn’t just kill her, too.
“He told me that it would have put me out of my misery. That this way, I was going to suffer forever.”
At the closed transfer hearing, several psychologists and TDJJ representatives testified, Lee says. She chose not to testify, but instead read a prepared statement advocating that Paris be sent to prison.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever written,” Lee told me. Because of her work with prisoners, she knew better than most what her son would soon face inside.
“I truly feel my son is dangerous, and that if he was released, I’d be in danger or somebody else could get hurt,” she said. “But at the same time, I knew what prison meant for my baby … I knew there’s the possibility someone will hurt him because his crime was against a child. I knew he might not survive, and I was helping send him there.”
It was the first time I’d seen her veer away from the analytical and become emotional when talking about Paris.
“There’s nothing simple about dealing with Paris,” Lee explained.
In May, guards walked me through the hallways of Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Clemens Unit to meet Paris. I was the first journalist with whom he agreed to speak.
The first thing that struck me about Paris, now 19 years old, is how much he looks like his mother – the same high cheek bones, the same deep brown eyes. He sat down at a table across from me as a prison guard less then 10 feet away kept his eyes glued to us the entire 45-minute interview.
Paris told me his mother is “about the only advocate I’ve got,” and that she visits him once a month. They regularly speak over the phone. They share books and articles to discuss later.
“Over time, I’ve told her more and more, until now I feel we’ve reached a point where we’re completely open with one another,” Paris said. He was soft-spoken, articulate, and took long pauses to gather his thoughts before answering my questions. He flatly refused to talk about his relationship with Ella, or to answer many of my specific questions about the murder.
Paris admitted he had no wild hallucinations the night he murdered Ella, and that he first lied because he was afraid of what the police might do to him. “I don’t remember much of what happened” in the months following the murder, he said. “A lot of that time passed by as a blur.”
Paris says he was deeply troubled when he found out about his mother’s problems with drugs. At the time of the murder, Paris suspected she had again relapsed; she insists she had not.
There was a particularly pregnant pause when I asked Paris what motivated him to kill Ella. “It’s really hard to describe because it’s such a knotty issue,” he told me. “There’s an element of jealousy toward my sister involved. I will say that a lot of it was my hatred towards my mother. I knew that I could hurt her in a much worse way by hurting Ella than by physically hurting her.” Also, Paris said, “I was 13 years old. I had a very weird way of thinking through things.”
Paris contends his mother’s notion that he’s a psychopath is her way of trying to distill his actions down to something she can comprehend. “For her, that’s a simple way for her to refer to my capacity for violence, for the violence I’ve perpetrated in the past,” he said.
I told Paris something Lee explained to me in one of our conversations, that she feels there are two Parises: the one capable of monstrous things, and the one she loves.
“See, I don’t see it like that,” he said. “Because everybody has within them that capacity for violence. And given the right set of circumstances, you can act on that capacity. I held grudges. I was passive aggressive. I had poor empathy skills. All that led up to what I did.”
“But,” he said, “there’s no clear demarcation between good Paris and bad Paris. There’s just Paris.”
Paris told me he’s bothered by his mother using their family story in her advocacy work — “I don’t care to have my personal history plastered across newspapers” — because he knows it could hurt him down the road during the parole process. He’ll first be eligible for parole in 2027, after he’s served half of his sentence. If Paris serves his full 40-year sentence, he’ll be a 53-year-old man when he’s released.
Still, Paris knows little about his mother’s personal life. He talks about her pregnancy as if she’s bought a new car. And he knows she still considers him dangerous.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Let’s just say I was released tomorrow, no parole or mandatory supervision or anything. I wouldn’t hurt anybody. … I have no interest in coming back to prison.”
I finally asked if he’s learned to cope with what he did to Ella.
“Dealing with it would involve a lot of introspection, and this isn’t an environment that’s ideal for that,” he said somewhat flatly.
Those types of answers, I told him, reinforce the notion he has little remorse for what he’s done. Paris told me he still keeps many of his feelings about the murder walled off because “those thoughts and memories have really sharp edges … and every time I handle them I end up getting cut.”
He continued, “I’m aware that my flat affect hurts me in here… I’m fairly helpless to do anything about it. I’m not going to act like somebody that I’m not.”
- PHOTO COURTESY CHARITY LEE
- Paris and Ella, ages 10 and 2
“He doesn’t fit any typical categories,” Charity Lee said shortly after my interview with Paris. They spoke over the phone two days after my visit, on Mother’s Day.
“It was probably one of the most in-depth conversations we’ve had in a while,” she said. She considers whether she’s still afraid of Paris. She thinks that maybe the dangerous side of him has gone dormant, for now.
But dormant doesn’t mean gone, Lee says. “If Paris were to be released, as he is today, I’d be afraid,” she told me.
Last week, right before Lee gave birth to her newborn son, Phoenix, she got a letter from Paris that shows an emotional side he rarely reveals. In the letter, Paris expresses both joy for his mother’s baby and sorrow that he’ll likely never be involved in his brother’s life.
“There’s nothing easy about dealing with Paris,” Lee repeated. “It’s tough to love him, but I still do.”
The day after giving birth, Lee again spoke to Paris over the phone. She relayed what doctors had just told her: that Phoenix was born with a faulty heart valve, and would need open heart surgery this week. To her surprise, Paris wept.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever heard him that emotional before,” Lee told me.
Lee now fears she could lose yet another child. “There’s this metaphor I just can’t get out of my head,” she told me. “It’s the woman with the broken heart giving birth to a kid with a broken heart.”
For the past six years, Lee has kept the copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz she had been reading to Ella before the murder. Where they stopped, before Dorothy reaches the Emerald City, was still bookmarked.
Lee is now reading the very same book to Phoenix in Christus Santa Rosa’s neonatal intensive care unit, where he’s waiting for surgery.
“I keep telling Phoenix he has to stick around long enough for us to finish this book and the thousands of others I never got to read to Ella.”