Indianapolis man exonerated after 25 years in prison

Indianapolis man exonerated after 25 years in prison

Leon Benson, 47, walked out of a state prison in Pendleton Thursday after spending more than half his life behind bars.

INDIANAPOLIS — An Indianapolis man is free after spending 25 years in prison for an execution style murder. Leon Benson’s conviction was overturned this week by Marion County Superior Court Judge Shatrese Flowers. Benson, 47, walked out of a state prison in Pendleton Thursday after spending more than half his life behind bars.

Lara Bazelon, director of the University of San Francisco Racial Justice Clinic, investigated Benson’s case and joined legal advocates and family to welcome Benson to freedom.  

“The first thing he said to us was, ‘The truth never dies. It’s only rediscovered,’ which is his motto,” said Bazelon. “And he was so exhilarated. Honestly, until I saw him, and I could actually give him a hug, I didn’t believe it. And then in that moment, it finally sunk in, and it was just an incredible feeling of relief and triumph.”

On Aug. 8, 1998, Kasey Schoen, a white man, was shot five times as he sat in his truck on14th Street near Pennsylvania Street. The truck was running, the transmission in drive, Schoen’s foot on the brake. 

The key witness was a white woman delivering newspapers to a vending machine 150 feet up the street. She saw a dark-skinned Black man fire shots, and picked Benson out of a photo array, but conceded in trial testimony that Benson was a light-skinned Black man. 

“Sad to say more than 50% of people who have been wrongfully convicted are Black,” said Bazelon. “Most of them are Black men. Quite often it happens in these misidentification cases, where there’s a cross racial identification and the witness is firmly convinced that he or she is absolutely right. And they’re mistaken.”

Bazelon said Benson was convicted and sentenced to 61 years in prison, despite no physical or forensic evidence linking him to the murder. The investigation for post-conviction relief discovered that police failed to disclose evidence that pointed to another man named Joseph Webster as the killer. 

Police found Webster in the neighborhood with a .38 handgun, the same caliber used to kill Shoen. He also was carrying dozens of rocks of cocaine. Another witness also came forward who identified Webster as being at the scene of the shooting. But the detective did not forward that evidence to the prosecutor. 

This case is the first exoneration since Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears started the Conviction Integrity Unit in 2021. The prosecutor’s office released a statement: 

“In order to garner the community’s trust in the criminal justice system, it is critical that the integrity of the process is maintained at every point, from the investigation through post-conviction efforts. 

This has been a long and difficult process for everyone involved but justice requires that we set aside this conviction.  

The challenges presented in this case underline the importance of why the Conviction Integrity Unit was established and why we continue to identify and remedy wrongful convictions and ensure that justice and fairness are upheld.”

Benson could be eligible for restitution from Indiana’s Exoneration Fund. A person can receive up to $50,000 for every year they are wrongfully incarcerated.