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Cover 06/12/2013

Murder Destroyed Charity Lee's Family, Forever Altered Her Concept of Justice

Photo: PHOTO COURTESY CHARITY LEE /BEN EASTER, License: N/A

PHOTO COURTESY CHARITY LEE /BEN EASTER

Photo: PHOTO COURTESY CHARITY LEE, License: N/A

PHOTO COURTESY CHARITY LEE

Paris and Ella, ages 10 and 2


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.”

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