- What is the potential legal fallout that Michael Bennett faces after a grand injury indicted him on Friday for allegedly injuring an elderly paraplegic?
Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett is no stranger to controversy, but on Friday, the 32-year-old Pro Bowler was hit with an unusual accusation: A Harris County (Texas) grand jury indicted Bennett for injuring a 66-year-old paraplegic. The reported victim worked at Houston’s NRG Stadium during Super Bowl LI, which Bennett attended as a spectator. Bennett was there to support his younger brother, Martellus, who played tight end for the New England Patriots.
The incident allegedly occurred shortly after the Patriots won Super Bowl LI 34-28. According to the office of Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, Michael Bennett was physically aggressive in rushing onto the field to celebrate with his victorious brother:
Immediately following the game, Bennett shoved his way on to the field where players were gathering to celebrate.
NRG Security personnel, including the 66-year-old disabled victim, told Bennett he had to use a different entrance for field access.
Instead, he pushed through them, including the elderly woman who was part of the security team [and whose job at NRG Stadium was to control access to the field].
The charge and why Bennett’s mental state and extent of victim’s injuries matter
Bennett has been indicted with violating Texas Penal Code § 22.04, a criminal statute that imposes a heightened punishment for injuring a child, elderly individual (defined under Texas law as someone 65 or older) or a disabled individual. A person commits this offense if he or she “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence,” causes someone to suffer one of three defined categories of harm—serious bodily injury; serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury; or bodily injury.
There are a couple of important points in this statute. First, Bennett could be convicted even if he did not intend to hurt anyone. In fact, he could be convicted if he merely acted with “criminal negligence” which in layperson’s terms refers to careless conduct where someone should have known better. Although prosecutors need to prove each element of the case beyond a reasonable doubt, the element of Bennett’s “mens rea”—his mental state—might not, depending on the prosecution’s theory of guilt, prove difficult to establish.
Second, this Texas statute assigns a different felony classification depending on the defendant’s mental state and the kind of harm he or she inflicted. Specifically, if the defendant intentionally or knowingly caused “serious bodily injury” or “serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury,” then the defendant has committed a first-degree felony (5 to 99 years in prison). If such injuries were caused recklessly, then a second-degree felony has been committed (2 to 20 years); if they were caused with criminal negligence, then a third-degree felony is applicable (2 to 10 years).
Alternatively, if the victim’s injury was not serious, then intentional or knowing misconduct would lead to a third-degree felony (2 to 10 years in prison), while reckless or criminal negligence would trigger a state jail felony (180 days to 2 years).
Under Texas law, serious bodily injury is defined as “bodily injury that creates a substantial risk of death or that causes death, serious permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.” In contrast, mere bodily injury is defined as “physical pain, illness, or any impairment of physical condition." To illustrate the difference between a serious bodily injury and bodily injury, in Bueno v. Texas, a Texas Court of Appeals reasoned that a stomach scar from a stabbing is not a serious bodily injury because it is not sufficiently disfiguring.
According to the district attorney’s office, Bennett caused “bodily injury”—the lower level of injury—and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. This combination indicates that he is initially accused of intentionally or knowingly causing a non-serious bodily injury. Additional information about the victim’s injury was obtained in an accompanying press conference hosted by the Houston Police Department on Friday. Chief Arturo "Art" Acevedo identified the injury as a sprained shoulder.
Role of the grand jury and possible evidence
Super Bowl LI occurred 411 days ago. Bennett’s attorneys might rightfully question what took so long to charge their client—especially if, as prosecutors contend, there is a strong case. Part of the delay could reflect the grand jury process, which is a required step for felony prosecutions in Texas unless a defendant waives such a right.
Grand juries normally take months to process evidence and witness testimony. In Harris County, Texas, grand juries are empanelled for three-month terms. As Bennett’s attorneys will surely stress, grand juries are notoriously “stacked” in favor of prosecutors, who largely run the proceedings and conduct those proceedings in private. Also, the standard for an indictment is hardly beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard is instead “probable cause,” which generally means the grand jury has concluded there are sufficient facts to lead a reasonable person to surmise that the target of the grand jury (in this case Bennett) committed a crime. Probable cause, then, does not require nearly the kind of certainty needed to convict someone.
In terms of evidence possibly reviewed by the grand jury in deciding to indict Bennett, witness testimony likely played a critical role. The victim and persons around her were likely asked to provide sworn testimony as to their recollections of events. To the extent those witnesses produced any contemporaneous notes (such as text messages or emails about the incident created minutes after the incident occurred), they may be able to corroborate their memories with electronic evidence. In addition, given that the incident took place immediately after the Super Bowl, one would expect there is ample video and photographic evidence. Surprisingly, however, Acevedo acknowledged that no relevant video or photographic evidence has surfaced.
The warrant for Bennett and his potential defenses
An arrest warrant has been issued for Bennett, though the district attorney’s office note that prosecutors are “working with Bennett’s counsel regarding his surrender.” It does not appear that Bennett, who played high school and college football in Texas, will attempt to avoid appearing in Texas. Besides, states usually have legal obligations to extradite (surrender) someone charged with a felony in another state.
As to the case against Bennett, very little is publicly known at this time. The depiction of facts provided by the district attorney’s office is not neutral—it reflects the prosecution’s narrative. Whether such a narrative can withstand judicial scrutiny and challenging by Bennett’s attorneys remains to be seen. For instance, if evidence suggests that the incident was more of a fluke accident than a result of Bennett being aggressive or irresponsible, Bennett would not have committed a crime. In the immediate aftermath of a Super Bowl—especially one like Super Bowl LI that ended in a thrilling overtime—there is some degree of chaos on the field. Bennett’s attorneys would stress that both Bennett and the alleged victim ought to be judged in light of that setting.
Also, the accuracy of the witnesses’ memories could be challenged. To that end, we don’t know how long after the incident the witnesses testified before the grand jury. The longer the gap in time, the greater the possibility of errors in recollection occurred.
Likewise, if any incriminating video and photographic evidence becomes available, the quality of such evidence in light of the post-Super Bowl chaos would be critical. Further, if no such evidence emerges, Bennett’s attorneys will depict the omission as a weakness in the prosecution’s case.
Bennett could reach a plea deal and even if convicted, he might not go to jail
There’s a solid chance that Bennett never stands trial. It’s possible that he and prosecutors reach a plea deal where he pleads guilty or “no contest” (not admitting fault but not presenting a defense) to a misdemeanor and he receives no jail time. Bennett might be fined, ordered to perform community service and/or placed on probation, but avoiding jail time would be his top priority.
Then again, Bennett doesn’t shy away from speaking up for his rights. If he believes that he has been wrongly accused and that his name has been slandered, he could elect to stand trial. Even if he loses a trial, he still might not be sentenced to prison. In Texas, so long as a sentence does not exceed 10 years, it is possible for a convicted defendant to receive a “suspended sentence.” Such a sentence is one where the judge delays the jail or prison detainment in order to provide the convicted defendant a chance to avoid trouble. If he or she stays out of trouble during a probationary period, the convicted defendant will not serve the sentence behind bars.
Eligibility for a suspended sentence depends on a range of factors, including whether the defendant has a prior criminal record and whether the judge elects to use such discretion to the defendant’s benefit. Bennett has certainly generated headlines—he has been outspoken on NFL speech issues, he has been remarkably charitable and last August he was detained, but not arrested, by Las Vegas police officers (who he later accused of racism)—but he does not appear to have been convicted of a crime.
Impact of the indictment on Bennett’s NFL career
It is unlikely that either the Eagles or NFL will take any immediate action against Bennett. As explained above, Bennett being accused of a crime should not be equated to Bennett committed a crime. This is particularly true in a legal dispute where little is known about the strength of the evidence. While NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could technically punish Bennett before the case develops, such a move would seem unfair on its face and would likely trigger a challenge by the National Football League Players Association.
That said, if Bennett is ultimately found at fault, the NFL could punish him. The league would surely be dismayed that Bennett injured anyone at a game, but injuring an elderly paraplegic person would be even worse. Under Article 46 of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, Goodell can fine or suspend players “for conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football.”
Bennett could also stand to lose endorsement deals. Those deals likely contain “morals clauses,” which enable the endorsed company to suspend or terminate an endorsement deal if a player brings about negative publicity for himself or the endorsed company.
Possibility of civil litigation against Bennett and the NFL
In addition to participating as a witness in a criminal case against Bennett, it’s possible that the person whom he allegedly injured sues him. Possible claims would include battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. This person could potentially also sue the NFL for failing to provide safe working conditions.
Such legal claims, however, would likely be limited by the fact that this person works in stadium security. It stands to reason that this person assumes some degree of risk of injury by virtue of the position.
Michael McCann, is SI's legal analyst. He is also the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and co-author with Ed O'Bannon of the new book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.