Darwin G. Bowman today was sentenced to two life terms in prison for his role in the 2009 death of William Bennett and the brutal beating of his wife Cynthia along Riverside Parkway in Lansdowne, but will be expected to serve a suspended sentence of 43 years and five months under the terms of a plea agreement that requires him to testify against the lead perpetrator in the attack.
Loudoun Circuit Court Judge Thomas D. Horne today accepted the terms of an agreement proposed by prosecutors June 20, in which Bowman pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and aggravated malicious wounding.
Bowman is the second of three suspects to plead guilty in the case. The third man, Anthony R. Roberts has not yet been charged, although he is behind bars serving a sentence on unrelated charges.
Jaime Ayala, who was 17 at the time of the attack, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and aggravated malicious wounding in the case in 2011. Ayala was sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years.
Roberts has been identified as the principal attacker, beating William Bennett to death and brutalizing Cynthia Bennett and leaving her for dead on the side of the road. Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Plowman said indictments against him in the case could be sought this fall.
After accepting the plea agreement, Horne heard four hours of testimony about factors to be considered for sentencing, including remarks by the Bennetts' two daughters, Bowman's mother and girlfriend and an expert on gangs, among others.
Jennifer Bennett, the eldest of the two daughters, was first to testify, reading from a letter she wrote and addressed to the court. She described being asked to identify her mother after the beating, saying, "I didn't recognize the woman in front of me. My initial reaction was, what am I going to do?"
She went on to detail her mother's current condition—Cynthia Bennett will walk with a cane for the rest of her life and had to be fitted with a colostomy bag as a result of her rape during the attack. "I felt trapped—there was nothing I could do to make it better," Jennifer Bennett said.
"These three men have forever changed our lives by their stupidity and careless disregard for human life. Today my mom's personality is very different. She has lots of anxiety—before she was very confident...today she's there, but it's just not the same woman. She's still my mother, but her personality is not the same."
Plowman acknowledged the difficulty of Jennifer Bennett's taking the stand to speak about what happened to her family, asking, "how do you feel?"
"I'm pissed," she replied.
"It's out of my hands now, but mostly I'm angry. I have to keep it to myself. I have to take care of my family, my mom and move on."
Samantha Bennett's testimony proved more emotional—the younger daughter didn't know what happened to her parents until she arrived at the hospital where her mother had been admitted. Cynthia Bennett had a long commute each day, and her daughter assumed perhaps there had been a car accident. She was met at the hospital by her uncle and observed other family members present, but didn't see her father.
"My uncle told me what happened [to my dad]. I immediately fell to the ground and, I think I screamed. He said to prepare for the worst because we didn't know if mom would make it. It was a stressful, hurtful time," Samantha Bennett said.
She also relayed to the court the ongoing assistance required of herself and her sister in their mother's recovery process. Cynthia Bennett spent almost two weeks in intensive care and underwent months of rehabilitation and recovery following the attack. "She had to relearn how to eat and write—everything we take for granted she had to learn again," Samantha Bennett said.
Breaking down on the stand, she continued, "I'm tired of reliving this...before I had a mother, someone I could talk to...now I no longer am able to lean on her. I don't want to put her through more than she's already been through. I lost my mom, my best friend, mentor and guide. I still love her with all my heart, but she's different."
The bulk of the day's testimony came from defense witnesses, including Bowman's mother, who had her own heartbreaking story to tell. The 42-year-old Guatemala native came to the United States in 1989, after paying $1,500 to a smuggler to bring her into the country. The man raped his charge, beginning a years-long relationship of abuse and intimidation.
Darwin Bowman was the child of that rape. "[The smuggler] told me if I didn't have sex with him he'd leave me in the dessert to die," Dunia Bowman said.
During the next four years she was with the smuggler, Dunia Bowman tried repeatedly to leave under threat of her life. The man threatened to kill her if she did so, or to return to Guatemala to kill her young daughter, who she'd had to leave behind in order to come to the U.S. "He was abusing me the whole time. He was hitting me every day," she said.
Eventually Dunia Bowman did flee to Guatemala—she took Darwin and returned to her family home, only to be followed by her tormenter. The smuggler kidnapped then-4-year-old Darwin Bowman, and held him for two months for a ransom of $2,000. During that time, the young child was beaten repeatedly, sustained injuries to his head, contracted tuberculosis and lost a significant amount of weight.
Dunia Bowman paid the ransom, got her son back and returned to the U.S. In the ensuing years, she married, obtained her U.S. citizenship and was able to bring her daughter to the country. Her son showed signs of improvement, maintaining adequate grades in school and generally staying out of trouble. It wasn't until around 2003, when the family moved from Fairfax to Sterling, that Darwin Bowman would begin experiencing consistent run-ins with the law.
Petty theft, truancy, running away from home and similar incidents resulted in Darwin Bowman's entry into the juvenile justice system at around 12 years old. He did receive some psychological counseling and treatment at that time, but was not "engaged in the therapy, and neither was his family," Dr. Jeffrey Aaron, a clinical and forensic psychologist called to testify by the defense, said.
"Darwin didn't get [psychological] interventions early enough. His school counselors recommended treatment, which did not happen."
Aaron, who evaluated Darwin Bowman extensively at the request of the court, detailed a young man who fell victim to a perfect storm of trauma, neglect and institutional failures that led to a series of "poor decisions."
Aaron pointed to a "critical event" in Darwin Bowman's life, which he believed tipped the scales for the teen toward the criminal path. During a trip to Mexico with a family friend, Darwin Bowman was further exposed to shocking violence, including witnessing a stranger being beaten almost to death with a chain in the street. "In Mexico, Darwin had his first sexual experiences, he went to parties and was drinking and doing drugs," Aaron said.
"He felt connected to the scene there. He also found it compelling—the experience was deeply damaging."
Upon returning to Sterling, Darwin Bowman became more enmeshed in a peer group Aaron described as "extremely delinquent and violent," and eventually became a member of the 18th Street Gang. Between age 12 and 14, Darwin Bowman experienced a number of short stays in juvenile detention. Eventually he was remanded to a residential psychiatric facility, where he was diagnosed with conduct, substance abuse and mood disorders, was prescribed medication and began to react positively to psychotherapy. "There was the sense that he would be OK to discharge—then things went downhill," Aaron said.
Outpatient therapy was not adequate to address Darwin Bowman's deep trauma, and the therapists tasked with administering his case "didn't pursue his treatment," Aaron said.
"Things could have gone considerably better [for Darwin] and there was evidence that they started to...in a complicated case like this, there is no way outpatient therapy was going to be sufficient."
The second tipping point came when Darwin Bowman ended up in a fight with his sister's then-boyfriend. The man slammed the teenager in the head with a metal baseball bat, sending him to the hospital. "After that, Darwin was angry all the time," Wendy Bowman, Darwin's sister, testified earlier in the day.
"He was out of control. He got arrested and detained after his release from the hospital and everything fell apart," Aaron said, adding the incident took place about eight months before the attack on the Bennetts.
Aaron concluded the combination of early childhood trauma, ongoing familial problems, the events in Mexico and the influences of a delinquent peer group enabled extremely poor decision making on Darwin Bowman's part. "He wanted to belong, so he joined a gang. He wasn't dragged kicking and screaming, he wanted girls and respect and violence was the price of admission," Aaron said.
During the past four years in the Loudoun Adult Detention Center, Aaron said Darwin Bowman had come to acept the fact that he made "dumb decisions" and didn't try to avoid blame for them. "There is evidence of a greater maturity and connection to other people," Aaron said.
"[Darwin Bowman] has shown a greater capacity to reflect with nuance and take responsibility for his actions."
In his closing statements, Plowman made little attempt to address Darwin Bowman's psychological portrait as painted by his family members and the expert witnesses. Instead, he directed Judge Horne's attention to a series of photographs of the crime scene, William Bennett's body and Cynthia Bennett's injuries. He asked Horne to take note of a "bowl-shaped impression," where "[William Bennett's] head was beaten into the ground." Plowman pointed to photos of a burn pile, where the three perpetrators attempted to destroy evidence of their crimes and referenced the 10 doctors and residents who worked quickly to save Cynthia Bennett's life.
"It's nothing short of a miracle that they were able to save Mrs. Bennett...Darwin Bowman was a willing participant in this act. He did not attempt to stop these acts as they were occurring," Plowman said.
He added that while understanding the events that led up to Darwin Bowman's involvement in the Bennett attacks was perhaps worthwhile, "you can't hold a person's hand through their entire life. They make their own decisions."
In closing for the defense, attorney Meghan Shapiro asked Horne to consider the "concept of faith," in so far as having the faith that, if given the chance, Darwin Bowman would attempt to better himself in prison and upon his release. "It's easy to make assumptions about Darwin, but he existed before this incident and he exists after," she said.
Shapiro also reiterated "what Darwin did not do—he did not strike or kick William Bennett. He didn't do those terrible things to Cynthia Bennett.
"[Darwin] feels an immense level of remorse...he wishes he cold make things right for the Bennett family," Shapiro said, before asking Horne to sentence her client to 22 years in prison, "as much as he has been alive."
Finally, Darwin Bowman was allowed to address the court before sentencing. As he removed a written statement from his pocket, the 22-year-old said the words "come from my heart."
Crying as he read, Darwin Bowman apologized to the Bennetts, the court, the Commonwealth of Virginia and Loudoun County. He apologized to his own family—"from now on, everything I do is for you, mom."
"I'm so sorry for my involvement in this horrible crime—I hate myself for it. I will deal with this guilt for the rest of my life and I will never be the same person I was that night. It's time to be a man and stand up for what's right...I am done with the gang lifestyle...I will forever be sorry," Darwin Bowman said.
Before delivering the sentence, Horne said the case was not about gangs, but about Roberts as a "gang wannabe." He spoke of Roberts becoming enraged at William Bennett, who had gestured to the white cargo van to slow down as it was speeding past himself and his wife as they walked along Riverside Parkway.
"This angers Roberts, he turns the van around and destroys Mr. Bennett with his bare hands and feet. It's horrible. While he was doing that you strike Mrs. Bennett, then Roberts does horrible things to her," Horne said.
Horne said Bowman was the primary witness to one of the most "horrifying" crimes he has seen in 50 years of practicing law.
"What did you do when you looked into the face of evil? Nothing," he said.