Ashley Benefield’s attorneys appear in court for motions hearing

Posted at 6:16 PM, June 3, 2024

Lawyers for Ashley Benefield asked a judge on Monday to exclude from evidence in her second-degree murder trial certain details from her child custody battle with her estranged husband, including a judge’s ruling that called into question her credibility.

Ashley Benefield appears in court

Ashley Benefield appears in court Thursday, July 6, 2023, for an immunity hearing. (Court TV)

Ashley Benefield claims she shot Douglas Benefield in self-defense after he attacked her while she was moving out. Manatee County prosecutors allege Ashley shot Douglas to avoid sharing custody of their child with him.

Benefield, who is out on bond, did not appear in court Monday for the hearing on several defense motions to exclude evidence that came out of the couple’s long and bitter custody battle over their daughter, who was two-and-a-half years old when her father died.

The Benefields met in 2016 and wed after 13 days of knowing each other. Three months later, Ashley became pregnant. Soon after, she initiated legal proceedings against Douglas, accusing him of poisoning her and her unborn child with “heavy metals” among other allegations of abuse.

The Benefields appeared in court in September 2018 for a hearing on Ashley’s petition for a domestic violence injunction and Douglas’ motion for temporary custody. In a scathing ruling, Circuit Court Judge Diana Moreland said she did not “find a single scintilla of credibility” on Ashley’s part or in the evidence she presented to justify blocking her husband from seeing their daughter. Moreland gave Douglas increasing visitation frequency over time and ultimate decision making in their daughter’s medical needs.

Ashley shot Douglas to death three days before a September 2020 hearing in front of the same judge.

Manatee County prosecutors played an audio recording of Moreland’s ruling in Benefield’s 2023 stand your ground in which another judge denied her request for immunity from prosecution based on her self-defense claim. Benefield’s lawyer, Neil Taylor, argued in a new motion that prosecutors should not be able to play the audio again when Benefield stands trial in front of a jury.

The ruling contains numerous “inflammatory credibility determinations” of “forceful, condemnatory language” that would prejudice the jury against Benefield given Moreland’s status as a judge, Taylor wrote in the defense motion to exclude the ruling audio.

In court Monday, Taylor accused prosecutors of “weaving innuendo and inference” to create the theory that Ashley decided to kill Douglas rather than face him in another hearing in front of the same judge that doubted her credibility.

“And there is no evidence, not a scintilla, that supports that inference,” Taylor said Monday. If prosecutors are permitted to play the audio, Taylor argued the defense should get a chance to “test the credibility of Judge Moreland” by deposing her, declaring her an adverse witness and questioning her about her knowledge of domestic violence.

Assistant State Attorney Suzanne O’Donnell argued in response that Moreland’s ruling could be considered prejudicial but not unfairly so. O’Donnell proposed instructing the jury that they could only consider the ruling for its impact on Benefield’s state of mind, not for the truth of the matter.

Benefield’s defense also asked Judge Matt Whyte to exclude the testimony of Dr. Brad Broeder. The psychologist testified in Benefield’s 2023 immunity from prosecution hearing about mental health evaluations he performed on Doug and Ashley Benefield as part of an investigation into child abuse allegations. Taylor argued the evaluation and records from the investigation are confidential and should not have been released to prosecutors in the first place. O’Donnell argued the prosecutor’s office was entitled to them under exemptions to non-disclosure laws concerning the needs and treatment of a child.

“Our argument is a mother murdering a father does include the evaluation of needs of the child,” O’Donnell said. “We had every right to explore what was happening with this family.”

Presiding Judge Matt Whyte will issue rulings on these and other motions argued today, including a request to prevent prosecutors from showing Benefield’s mugshot to the jury.