Moments before the jury was expecting to hear a third day of testimony in a 31-year-old murder case, attorneys for both sides emerged from the judge’s chambers Thursday morning with a plea agreement in hand.
Defendant Benjamin Bewley, accused of fatally shooting Melvin Lavine in 1983, pleaded guilty to a murder charge and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Bewley, 50, will be eligible for parole after serving five years, his attorney John Stickels said.
Bewley had been charged with capital murder, and, if convicted, he could have been sent to prison for life, Stickels said after state District Judge Louis Sturns announced the sentence.
“We’re blessed,” said Sheila Bewley, Bewley’s sister.
A smiling Bewley hugged his 10-year-old daughter and his 16-year-old stepson just before he was marched back to the holding area by Tarrant County sheriff’s deputies.
“We are pleased with the outcome and pleased with the integrity of the district attorney’s office,” Stickels said. “Resolving this case was rough for both sides.”
After sentencing, Lavine’s eldest daughter, Marla Wolf, told the court in a victim impact statement that Bewley’s actions left her family without a father’s wisdom and guidance.
“There are two things that I’m sorry for,” Wolf said. “That my children and my grandchildren didn’t get to know such a strong man, the man who is responsible for the people we are today. The other thing that I’m sorry for is that your children have to call you ‘father.’ ”
Lavine, 61, a well-known pawnshop owner, was asleep with his wife in their house in the 2300 block of Colonial Parkway on March 13, 1983, when one or two intruders broke through the glass back door, ripped the phone cord out of the wall, demanded money and then shot him four times.
The intruders took a purse belonging to Lavine’s wife and fled. The case went unsolved until Fort Worth police Detective Sarah Jane Waters submitted a glass shard from the back door for DNA testing.
Last year, the DNA was found to match Bewley, who was then in the Taylor County Jail facing a DWI charge.
Hard work by Waters and the original investigators made the resolution of the case possible, prosecutor Robert Foran said. The passage of time, difficulty finding witnesses and old forensic techniques make prosecuting some cold cases challenging, Foran said in an emailed statement.
Bewley’s attorneys suggested that an associate of Bewley’s killed Lavine. Foran said evidence and testimony showed otherwise.
“In light of the testimony and evidence presented in this trial, we felt that this plea bargain was the appropriate resolution to this 31-year-old case after consulting with the family,” Foran said.
Cindy Lavine, another of Lavine’s daughters, told Bewley that he had received a light sentence by the grace of God.
“Your actions have been far more damaging than I have words for,” she said. “You have been living the life of a man who got away with murder every day.”