The inmates bided their time in holding tank 623 on the top floor of the Douglas County Courthouse.
A few lounged on a concrete bench. Some paced as they waited to go to court.
Marvin Stockdale, known in confinement as a jailhouse attorney, held court. The silent surveillance video showed the Kansas City man — awaiting a hearing that day on a terroristic threats case in Omaha — at times standing on the bench, working the room, talking to anyone who would listen.
Eventually, the one inmate who would listen was Michael Benson, “the only one who looked like he cared about what I had to say.”
Stockdale testified Tuesday that they both talked about their cases — and that Benson confided in him and then confessed to him.
“He said, ‘I got rid of the gun after I smoked the dude,’ ” Stockdale testified.
Stockdale said he knew the case Benson was talking about because he had seen it in the newspaper: the shocking September 2017 shooting of Army veteran James Womack, 32, during a rush-hour traffic dispute at 60th and L Streets.
Prosecutors highlighted Benson’s comments as they wrapped up a case built on circumstantial evidence. (Attorneys are expected to give closing arguments Wednesday.)
Benson’s defense attorney, Beau Finley, noted that Stockdale has claimed that another defendant in a separate murder case confessed to Stockdale during the same time period.
Finley questioned whether Stockdale, who has been in jail for two years, was a confession magnet — a soothing soul who inmates pour their hearts out to. Or is he an informant who cooks up confessions?
“Wouldn’t you say it is an incredible coincidence to get not one but two (confessions) from different (murder) defendants in a very short period of time?” Finley asked Stockdale.
Stockdale leaned into the microphone.
“No,” he said.
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Building up to Stockdale’s testimony, prosecutors Amy Jacobsen and Ryan Lindberg have pointed to several things that they say implicate Benson in the shooting that shocked Omaha the afternoon of Sept. 18, 2017.
Among their evidence:
- Video that showed the confrontation in which Womack, a semi driver and a U.S. Army veteran who served three tours in Iraq, confronted a gold pickup truck that may have cut him off. Witnesses say Womack, 32, descended from the cab of his Hill Bros. semitrailer truck, uttered expletives, walked over, pounded his palms on the passenger-side window and yelled at the driver. As he walked away — nearly two traffic lanes from the gold pickup — someone shot him twice in the back.
Video showed a gold Chevy pickup peel away. It also showed that the truck had the same lower-panel body damage as the one owned by Benson.
- A GPS locator: Placed on the pickup truck by the dealer who sold the vehicle, the device shows the truck not far from the 60th and L Streets area at the time of the shooting.
- A discredited alibi: Benson claimed that his gold Chevy pickup had been stolen the day before the Monday shooting. But Omaha police homicide investigators, led by Detective Ryan Davis, found video taken about 1:30 p.m. Monday, just three hours before the shooting. It shows Benson tooling through the parking lot of the Hy-Vee at 96th and Q Streets in the gold pickup. It then shows Benson get out of the pickup, walk through the front doors past the inflatable bouncy balls and purchase $42 worth of flowers for a girlfriend.
- Ammunition shells found in the gold pickup — one in the truck bed and one inside the passenger door. After locating the pickup truck in midtown, Omaha police say they found shells that matched a shell found near Womack’s body at the scene. The shells at the scene and in the pickup were unique — coming from a 5.7 by 28 mm pistol, Davis testified.
- Jailhouse recordings of his phone calls: While awaiting trial, Benson made phone calls to at least two girlfriends, telling them they didn’t have to testify against him. “On my hood ... I don’t want you going down there at all,” Benson told one. Prosecutors have charged Benson with two counts of witness tampering on top of second-degree murder.
- Gunshot residue: The Hy-Vee video shows Benson wearing a gray Air Jordan sweatshirt and black Nike pants. Investigators searched Benson’s apartment, seized that clothing and tested it. Several places showed three primary components of gunpowder, an expert testified.
Finley brushed that aside — getting the expert to acknowledge that the test doesn’t show who fired the gun. Someone sitting next to Benson could have opened fire — and the plume of gunsmoke could have deposited on Benson.
That leads into Finley’s defense: that prosecutors can’t prove that Benson opened fire. The video establishes two people in the truck. And no one was able to single out Benson, Finley said. At best, Finley said, the gunshot residue could show that Benson was near whoever fired the weapon. The defense attorney also noted that residue tests can’t determine when a gun was fired.
Stockdale said he had never met Benson before the November 2017 day they both were in a holding cell, waiting to go to court. At one point, Benson left for court for 20 minutes, returned and sat next to Stockdale.
He looked “a little worried,” Stockdale said. “Said they were thinking about upgrading his charges (to murder).”
Stockdale said Benson muttered that authorities had “forensics” on a sweatshirt he was wearing. Asked what color it was, Stockdale said Benson told him it was red. (Actual color: gray.)
Benson told Stockdale he had reported the truck stolen and had set up an alibi a girlfriend would confirm.
“He said they didn’t have any fingerprints on the shells,” Stockdale testified. “He then said, ‘I got rid of the gun after I smoked the dude. They’ll never find that.’ ”
Finley wondered whether Stockdale simply picked up details of the crime from media reports on a preliminary hearing that occurred a few weeks before they were in the holding cell.
Finley noted that there was no audio and no other inmate to corroborate Stockdale’s allegations. Finley suggested that Stockdale, a two-time felon, was trying to curry favor from prosecutors. The defense attorney suggested that Stockdale wants to receive a much lighter sentence than the 73 years in prison he faces.
Finley also highlighted Stockdale’s comments to Davis, the homicide detective.
“When (Benson) got to talking to me about this case, I just said (to myself), ‘This may be my way out of here,’ ” Stockdale said in the police interview.
On the stand Tuesday, Stockdale said he didn’t recall making that comment.
Asked why he came forward, Stockdale said simply: “Because he confessed about a murder.”