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'I've lost all faith in the justice system': Family of homicide victim reacts to suspect's plea deal

Steven Tyler Benfield pleaded guilty to manslaughter Monday in 2015 death of Jessica Stewart. He was originally charged with murder.

YORK COUNTY, S.C. — A York County man charged in connection with a violent homicide in 2015 took a plea deal Monday to a lesser charge.

Steven Tyler Benfield was originally charged with murder in connection with the death of Jessica Stewart in August 2015. Investigators allege that Benfield stabbed Stewart and dumped her body near a home in Blacksburg, South Carolina. 

Appearing in court Monday, Benfield accepted a plea deal that lessen his charge to manslaughter. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and will receive credit for the time he has served since 2015.

The family of Stewart was upset with Monday's decision. Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, family members said they disagreed with the plea deal and wished the case had gone to trial. 

"I feel like they [prosecutors] let us down and they let Jessica down," Emily Pitman, Stewart's sister-in-law, said. "They're releasing a murderer in six years."

"I've lost all faith in the justice system at this point," Andrew Pitman said. "This guy brutally murdered my sister, and he's going to get out. He might serve six more years and he'll be back on the street. That's not justice and that doesn't do our community justice. This could happen to anybody."

Credit: WCNC

Prosecutors said multiple factors went into offering Benfield a plea deal in the case. Two deputies, who would've been key witnesses for the state, died, and prosecutors also expected the defense to introduce evidence of other people at Benfield's home around the time of Stewart's killing. 

"The offer was made in consultation with the sheriff's office, and there was an agreement with law enforcement that 15 years was appropriate considering the issues with the case," one prosecutor said during Monday's hearing. 

The York County Solicitor's Office issued the following statement to WCNC Charlotte:

"As stated in court during Mr. Benfield’s plea hearing this morning, several considerations went into the Solicitor’s Office agreement to make and honor the 15-year offer. Mr. Hayes was Mr. Benfield’s third attorney. The first was relieved in June of 2016.  Mr. Benfield requested a significant amount of additional  DNA testing which occurred in 2017 and 2018. Mr. Benfield was scheduled to go to trial with his second attorney in March of 2019, and that was postponed because the Defendant’s DNA expert died.  The case was set again for trial in June of 2020,  but the court shut down in March of 2020 and the trial could not be held then. The second attorney was then relieved from the case and Mr. Hayes was appointed in September of 2020.   

During the pendency of the case,  two Sheriff’s deputies who would be key State’s witnesses passed away.  We also anticipated the defense would introduce evidence of the presence of other individuals at Mr. Benfield’s home on the morning of the murder.  Both of those factors weighed into the State’s offer,  along with the general concerns raised by presenting evidence collected during an investigation from over six years ago.  The offer was made in consultation with the Sheriff's Office and there was an agreement with law enforcement that 15 years was appropriate considering the issues with the case.  We know the  Victim’s family members are disappointed with the plea agreement, but we believe the offer was within an acceptable sentencing range considering the facts and circumstances.

Two of the prior prosecutors on this case retired while it was pending.  The offer was conveyed by a prior prosecutor and our office continued to honor the offer after that prosecutor left.  The offer was rescinded two weeks ago, but Mr. Benfield was never told that the offer was rescinded.  Considering the post-conviction appeal issues that revoking the offer would create, we believed we were obligated to honor the offer that was made.  We apologize to the Victim’s family for the additional pain caused by our not notifying them of the plea offer."

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In 2015, a neighbor told WCNC Charlotte that he heard the two arguing before police arrived at the home. 

"They kept on fussing and arguing, and I didn't want to go over there and get involved in it," Frankie Faris said at the time. 

WCNC Charlotte's Indira Eskieva will be in the courtroom for Monday's hearing. Her full report on the proceedings will air during WCNC Charlotte News at 5 p.m.

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