Ridgeway public defender wins stand your ground case

Whitaker Fired After He Fired Chief Following Wrongful Murder Charge

CHESTER – It’s been a tumultuous week in Fairfield County’s neighbor to the north, where a man wrongfully jailed for murder has been freed and two high-ranking city leaders have been dismissed from their posts.

The city shakeup was set into motion at an August 15 hearing to determine whether William Caldwell III was justified in killing Corey Marcelle Bennett.

Jailed since his January 22 arrest, Caldwell never wavered from his story that he acted in self-defense, said Kay Boulware, the deputy public defender who represented Caldwell.

“Mr. Caldwell never, ever was inconsistent in any of his statements with me or law enforcement,” Boulware said. “He testified absolutely consistently.”

Circuit Court Judge Brian Gibbons agreed. On August 22, Gibbons signed an order granting Caldwell’s request for prosecutorial immunity.

Gibbons wrote that Caldwell was justified in killing Bennett under the Protection of Persons and Property Act, the state’s version of the stand your ground law, because he (Caldwell) was an invited guest and credibly feared for his life.

“The court finds that the Defendant was not at fault in bringing on the altercation that led to the death of Bennett and he was not involved in illegal activity,” the order states.

Likewise, the judge said the testimony of Chester Police Chief Curtis Singleton, who investigted the case, was “not credible,” which weighed heavily in the decision to exhonerate Caldwell.

“The lead investigator, Chief Curtis Singleton, when pressed by Defense [Boulware] in his testimony, failed to provide evidentiary support for his decision to charge the Defendant with murder within hours of the incident,” the order states.

Singleton was dismissed as chief the following day by Malik Whitaker, Chester city administrator at the time.

Whitaker himself was then terminated following a divided 5-4 Chester City Council vote Monday night. Whitaker, who was hired by the City of Chester in January 2023, had previously served as Fairfield County Administrator for one year.

Chester Mayor Carlos Williams couldn’t be reached for comment. A phone recording said his voicemail had not been set up.

Mayor Pro Tem Tabatha Strother confirmed the council voted to dismiss Whitaker, but declined further comment.

“There was a vote but at this point I don’t want to make any comments,” Strother said.

Boulware acknowledges even she was caught off guard by the swift firings in Chester. She said her primary focus was on proving that Caldwell acted in self-defense, calling it a “textbook case” for stand your ground laws.

“He [Caldwell] was where he had a right to be, and he did the best he could to defend himself,” Bouleware said. “This is why this law exists. This investigation shouldn’t have gone this way. There should’ve been more time between when Mr. Caldwell gave his statement and when a warrant was signed.”

According to court records, Caldwell and two relatives had been invited guests at Bennett’s home.

Caldwell had been sharing a bottle of vodka, but around 5 a.m. decided to leave and take the vodka with him.

Bennett got angry and threatened Caldwell outside with a knife, Caldwell said. Bennett pushed Caldwell to the ground and began to punch him while straddling him, court records state.

Caldwell struck Bennett in the face with the vodka bottle, shattering it. Then he struck Bennett in the chest and torso until he could free himself.

Bennett walked toward a shed, presumably to get a weapon, as Caldwell left the area.

Caldwell returned moments later, though, to retrieve a lost cell phone only to discover Bennett lying face down. A witness called 911 and, when authorities arrived, Bennett was pronounced dead.

“Mr. Bennett was still standing up when he [Caldwell] left. He had no idea that what he did to get Mr. Bennett off him fatally injured him,” Boulware said.

Boulware said Caldwell has never wavered in his account of what happened that night. But what really stood out, she said, were damning statements captured by Chief Singleton’s body camera.

According to the footage and court records, Singleton stated publicly to Caldwell and his family that he believed Bennett was killed by accident.

“I didn’t mean to kill him,” Caldwell said.

“I know,” Singleton replied, adding Caldwell didn’t “mean to do what happened.”

Pressed by Boulware about his initial remarks, Singleton testified it was “an investigative tactic,” court records state.

“The chief, the one thing he was consistent about, was that he thought it was an accident,” Bouleware said. “He went straight from declaring it was an accident, believing it was an accident, but then hours later he filed warrants for murder.”

Other parts of Singleton’s testimony didn’t add up either.

For example, the former chief testified he didn’t know it’s standard procedure to send blood samples from homicide victims to SLED for toxicology analysis, despite logging in over 20 years in law enforcement.

What came next stunned even the presiding judge.

Boulware asked Singleton why he didn’t contact the solicitor for guidance, which court records state is customary in death investigations.

“Chief Singleton inexplicably testified that he was a new chief and if he would have known who the solicitor was, he would have,” contacted him, according to the judge’s order.

Singleton claimed he had no way to find the solicitor’s name, even though that information is published on the Sixth Circuit Solicitor Office website.

“I was just floored by that. I don’t know that any head law enforcement officer doesn’t know who their solicitor is,” Boulware said.

Later, Singleton advised Caldwell’s family to consider hiring a private attorney to defend Caldwell, saying public defenders “can only take you so far.”

Boulware said she took that remark personally, but noted it galvanized her to pick apart Singleton’s testimony.

“I was offended by that. We are skilled, knowledgeable lawyers. I take my job very seriously,” she said. “We are ethically and professional required to try to know what we can about the case. I don’t know that this case would’ve turned out like this without the video.”

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