The Second Circuit Court of Appeal recently affirmed a 25-year sentence for a West Monroe man convicted last year of exchanging sexual messages through telephone messaging and Facebook with a 14-year-old girl.

John Clay Benson, of West Monroe was convicted of computer-aided solicitation of a minor after an August 2019 jury trial. In addition to the messages he sent the child, Benson also sent a photograph of his genitals via text message to the victim. During trial testimony, he admitted to the crime and expressed regret.

Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Stephens Winters found Benson to be a fourth-felony habitual offender and sentenced him to 25 years at hard labor without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.

Benson appealed his sentence to the Second Circuit, arguing that his sentence was excessive and disproportionate to the crime.

The minimum sentence for the offense is 20 years while the maximum, for a habitual offender, is life imprisonment, under state law.

“Our review of the record does not unearth any abuse of discretion by the trial court when sentencing Benson,” stated the Second Circuit’s ruling. “Benson’s sentence of 25 years at hard labor is very near the minimum sentence of 20 years.”

Second Circuit Judge Jay McCallum, of Farmerville, wrote the Nov. 10 opinion on behalf of a three-judge panel also including Chief Judge Milton Moore, of Monroe, and Judge Jeff Cox.

The Second Circuit’s ruling outlined the details of the investigation leading to Benson’s arrest and conviction. In early 2019, the 14-year-old victim accepted a friend request from a Facebook profile that Benson used under a different name. Authorities’ review of communications between the pair showed Benson and the victim established their ages as 31 and 14, respectively.

The victim’s mother discovered suspicious activity and asked for assistance from the Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff’s investigators determined Benson was the one using the Facebook profile and phone number to exchange messages of a sexual nature with the victim.

Benson initially denied knowing the victim though he ultimately admitted to communicating with her and to communications asking her to sneak out of her home. Messages filed into evidence showed Benson asking the victim to keep their communications hidden from her mother and father.

At trial, Benson claimed he had fallen in love with the victim but regretted sending her messages.

“In his offender statement for the PSI, Benson admitted his behavior was a bad choice and he regretted doing it,” stated the Second Circuit’s ruling.

“He believed that he was a productive member of society as shown by his work history. He asserted that he had always reported to his probation officer and attended his sex offender treatment. The victim’s mother requested that the victim not be interviewed for the PSI due to the psychological effects that the crime had caused.”

The Second Circuit noted that the commission of the crime had a “significant impact” on the victim. The court also noted the offense was not the first time Benson was accused of a sexual offense with an underage girl.

“In light of the fact that Benson had already taken some steps to meet the victim, the damage caused by Benson most likely would have been greater if the victim’s mother had not discovered the clandestine communications,” stated the Second Circuit’s ruling. “The fact that Benson was not a wordsmith when composing his text messages is not necessarily indicative of a lessened mental capacity on his part. Illiteracy is not tantamount to incapacity. The trial court was aware of Benson’s limited education when it crafted this near-minimum sentence. For all his asserted shortcomings, Benson was savvy enough to utilize social media to seduce an underage girl in what appears to have been a well-planned scheme.

Benson’s sentence is neither shocking to the sense of justice nor a purposeless and needless infliction of pain and suffering. The argument that his sentence is excessive is without merit.

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