It cost eight dollars, and one moment, for 16-year-old Lamar High School student Ashley Benton to end a teenage boy’s life—and her own life, as she knew it.
Eight dollars to buy a knife at a Montrose convenience store on the corner of Richmond and Dunlavy. The knife was crescent-shaped, with jagged, clawlike, serrated blades on each end of the black handle. It looked like nothing a teenage girl would carry. It looked deadly.
And one moment to use that knife to stab 15-year-old Gabriel Granillo in the heart. The incident occurred on June 6, 2006, in Ervan Chew Park in Montrose. It came during a fight between the Lamar High School Crazy Crew gang and a Houston teen faction of Central American gang MS-13. It killed him.
Benton was arrested the very next day. Infamy soon followed, as police, Harris County prosecutors and even some of the public called the teen a murderer. “Give her the needle,” wrote one commenter on the Houston Chronicle website.
Two months later, a juvenile court judge certified Benton to stand trial as an adult. Her attorney, Rick DeToto—planning to make the case that Benton was not a cold-blooded murderer but a terrified girl who’d killed Granillo in self-defense—reached out to attorney Brian Wice, an expert in legal case history.
“I want to go home,” Wice remembers Benton saying when they met. “I want to go home.” The prosecution’s initial plea offer was 40 years. Wice recalls reassuring her. “You will go home,” he told her. “Just not right now.” As they led Benton away in handcuffs, Wice knew he needed an expert in criminal defense—one who wouldn’t shy away from damning evidence and could solve seemingly insurmountable problems.
“If I was going to keep my promise to Ashley,” Wice remembers, “I knew there was one call I’d have to make. I called Kent Schaffer.”
There isn’t much that Houston defense attorney Kent Schaffer hasn’t seen in more than three decades in criminal defense law. He has represented the famous and infamous—CEOs, tycoons, A-list celebrities, rappers, athletes, even heads of cartels and gang members (see sidebar, next page).
With the pronounced most-interesting-man-in-the-world vibe he exudes, it wouldn’t be hard to picture the attorney himself as a record label owner in New York or the head of a Hollywood studio. The native Houstonian studied acting as a young man before becoming an investigator for legendary local trial attorney Richard “Racehorse” Haynes. Haynes counseled Schaffer to pursue a career in law instead.
“He said I’d be the coolest waiter at the bistro,” says Schaffer, who has no regrets. “The life I chose is trying to help people solve problems that they can’t solve on their own. To me, it’s the greatest job that there is.”
Persuaded by DeToto and Wice to take on Benton’s case, Schaffer, who’s defended clients at more than 100 jury trials, also agreed to take it on pro bono, as Wice had done. (There was no way the teen and her single mother could afford the estimated $150,000 legal bill.) Unfazed by the media circus surrounding the incident, Schaffer’s main concern was building a strong defense.
To this day, Schaffer says he’s never seen a prosecutor as effective as then–Assistant Harris County District Attorney Mia Magness. “I remember having mixed feelings,” he says. “She’s the best DA that I’ve ever gone up against. I wished that they got someone who wasn’t as good as her.”
The feelings were mutual. “Kent is subtle and methodical,” says Magness of her former adversary. “He’s not over-the-top. That’s one of his gifts: through his style and presentation, he makes jurors comfortable, and they find him credible and believable.”
As lead attorney for the case, Schaffer would cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses and manage and direct the defense team’s investigation. His aim was to counter Benton’s perceived cold-blooded-killer persona and build an argument for her self-defense: that when she stabbed Granillo, she had a reasonable fear of being killed.
Schaffer knew the jury wouldn’t go easy on Benton simply because she was a teenage girl. “If she shoplifted a piece of candy, they might’ve given her a break,” he says, “but nobody gives you a break for murder. The reasonable fear was that the guy who died was one who was certainly capable of inflicting death himself.”
For her part, Magness, citing the law and a Texas sense of justice, was unrelenting: “We still hold true to the fundamental belief that if you take a life, you’d better be justified,” she says, recalling her approach. “If there’s any gray area, our mentality says we’re going to hold you accountable.”
As they prepared for her trial, Benton detailed to her defense team her version of what had happened that fateful day. She’d been hanging around the all-male Crazy Crew at Lamar, and she knew there was going to be a fight when she went with them to Ervan Chew that afternoon in June 2006. At the park, somewhere around two-dozen young people gathered, bearing weapons like baseball bats, tire irons, golf clubs and knives. She’d been carrying around her own knife, she said, for self-protection, keeping it in her backpack.
As the fight started, Benton got scared and pulled the weapon out. Granillo came at her with an aluminum bat, she said, swinging twice, but she was able to jump out of the way. The next thing she remembered was closing her eyes and holding the knife out. Stabbed in the heart, Granillo fell to the ground. Benton’s hands were covered in blood.
Was Benton, in fact, fighting for her own life when she stabbed Granillo? Or did she pursue him after he turned away in retreat? The teen’s fate depended on which version of events the jury believed.
As the trial started in mid-June 2007, a new level of drama unfolded: DeToto was told that MS-13 had ordered a hit on Benton. News of death threats and heightened security at the courthouse captivated Houston.
In the courtroom, Schaffer introduced a more sympathetic version of Benton. He explained to the jury that she carried what he called “the scariest-looking knife you can imagine” not because she was looking for trouble, but because she was often alone at home—the Montrose four-plex she shared with her mother—and felt vulnerable and concerned for her safety. It was, Schaffer told the jury, a last resort. “Lots of people purchase a weapon hoping they’ll never have to use it,” he says today.
While the Crazy Crew was responsible for the occasional low-level crime, MS-13 was both well known and deadly. Schaffer concentrated on Granillo’s affiliation with the gang, consulting with MS-13 task force experts who had testified in a Washington, DC, case in which a young woman was decapitated before testifying against MS-13 gang members.
“The moment the word MS-13 was associated with the victim, that was an uphill battle,” Magness recalls. “The prosecution case got saddled with that baggage.”
Granillo, Schaffer argued, was not a simple teenage thug, but an ambitious gang leader who literally fought his way to the top. “He had been in combat with much older guys and passed them up,” says Schaffer today. “Some of the MS-13 guys testified that only the baddest guys become the leader. Nobody even contested the fact that he was a bad guy. He was tough, he was mean, and he wasn’t going to back away from a little 16-year-old girl. That wasn’t going to happen.”
The two teardrop tattoos inked under Granillo’s eye, Schaffer told the jury, broadcast an ominous message. “The understanding is that you only get those if you kill someone,” says the attorney.
As for witnesses’ accounts of an unwarranted attack by Benton: “Most of them were Gabriel’s friends,” Schaffer says. “They said she attacked him for no reason. The police believed them. But she clearly feared for her life.”
To counter Magness’s assertion that Benton had stabbed Granillo when he turned to run away, Schaffer brought in a medical examiner, who explained that the angle of Granillo’s entry wound suggested his body was in full-swing momentum—which matched Benton’s story that he had viciously attacked her, swung at her and missed.
“This wasn’t a guy who runs,” says Schaffer. “This is a guy who stands his ground—especially to a teenage girl. He wasn’t just walking through the park. He had the intention of messing someone up, and if someone died, so be it. If he had been a little quicker, or a little slower, she could’ve been dead instead of him. And he’d have another teardrop tattoo.”
For her part, Magness reminded the jury of Benton’s initial recorded statement. “As I remember,” Magness says today, “there was a point when Gabriel turned to run, and Ashley says, ‘That’s when I got him.’ If he was no longer a threat to her, she lost the right of self-defense.”
As arguments came to a close, the jurors were split right down the middle, with about half buying Schaffer’s argument and the rest agreeing with the prosecutor that the girl was a murderer. The jury deliberated for two days but could not reach a resolution. Finally, the judge declared a mistrial.
Six months later, on December 6, 2007, Benton took a deal, pleading guilty to aggravated assault, and was sentenced to five years’ probation. As Wice had promised, she was going home.
Eight years later, Schaffer reflects on the case—and his life—in his Museum District home. Last year, he lost his daughter, Max, an artist, to complications from encephalitis. She had contracted West Nile Virus in 2004, suffering rom seizures and, eventually, neurological impairment before finally succumbing to the disease a week shy of her 29th birthday. “Sometimes,” Schaffer says, looking at her picture, “things don’t end up the way you think they should.”
Looking back, the attorney sees disparate events in his life and connects them in ways he didn’t see at the time. A lifelong Inner Looper, he sent his own kids to Lamar and, in a way, thinks his children and Benton represented the haves and the have-nots at the school.
“My son, Zack, and my daughter went there,” he says. “Their friends are now lawyers and doctors; they own art galleries. They have families of their own, and they’re successful, because they had every opportunity and a strong family structure. Ashley didn’t have any of that—she didn’t have a father. If she had better breaks early on, maybe she wouldn’t have been in the position she was in. These kids may sit in the same classroom, but their experiences are completely different.” He pauses and thinks back. “Max was always very interested in Ashley’s case.”
Benton’s life, too, has changed a lot, although the intervening years haven’t lessened her fears of reprisal from MS-13. Reached on the phone, she prefers not to reveal her new last name or the state where she lives, but she says she’s happy—in fact, “couldn’t be happier.” She thanks God—and her lawyers—that she’s not behind bars or dead.
“I really thought that my life was over,” says Benton, now in her mid-twenties. “That was a huge wake-up call for me. I always wanted to appreciate the small things and dream of the big things. Now I do. I enjoy cooking for my family and watching my kids. The littlest things mean a lot to me.”
Benton says Schaffer’s been a role model for her adult life. “He taught me that just because you’re going through certain circumstances, doesn’t mean you have to become your circumstances.”
Remembering the “dark” months before and during her trial, she thinks Schaffer and Wice treated her like a daughter. “We would talk about family, his kids, what I wanted for my life. I never had those types of conversations with my real dad. It could’ve been just business with Kent. But he took it to another level and became a big part of my life. It really made me think about my life and think about where I wanted to go.”
“I hadn’t thought about it that way,” says Schaffer, for his part. “But yes, I suppose there was a paternalistic approach to Ashley’s case.”
Almost a decade has passed since then. Today, when he’s not trying cases, Schaffer indulges in his two passions: travel and photography. His dramatic, Parisian-themed home is filled with his images of Burmese orphans, Spanish bullfighters and the Hasidic Jewish communities of New York. “Whether it’s a client or a subject of a photograph,” he says, “there has to be a real curiosity of that person, who they are, and their story.”
As a way to connect with Max, Schaffer finds solace in spoiling his daughter’s Labradoodle, Dexter, even recently celebrating the dog’s birthday by bringing him to Brasserie 19 for a steak dinner—the true mark, perhaps, of a man who does exactly what he wants. “My expiration date could be just around the corner,” he says. “I’m not somebody who’s passive in watching people doing things. I’d rather be doing them myself.”