On September 3, 1986, a young woman and mother of four was brutally raped and murdered in Wallingford, Connecticut while working at her factory job. Police later found and arrested the man whom they believed had committed the crimes, Kenneth Ireland, and he was convicted and sentenced to fifty years in prison in 1989. In August 2009, however, DNA evidence exonerated him of all charges.
Barbara Pelkey, the 30-year-old victim, was employed at R.S. Moulding and Manufacturing Co., in North Plains Industrial Park. Kenneth Ireland was apparently convicted in her death based largely on the testimony of three people who claimed he had confessed his guilt to them. One of them later came forward and said that she had been drunk at the time of the supposed confession. The hair and fingerprint evidence found at the scene did not match Ireland. Semen found at the scene was determined to belong to one of a pool of 20% of American men, and Ireland was a member of that 20%. This circumstantial evidence was apparently enough for a jury to convict him. He was imprisoned for 21 years in total, two awaiting trial and 19 after conviction.
Police had interviewed Kevin Benefield, then 21, more than once in the course of the original investigation. They commented at the time that he “cooperated 100 percent” and gave saliva samples. Benefield apparently left the state for New York after the crime in the late 1980’s, and remained there until he was extradited back to Connecticut and charged four months after Ireland’s release. The Connecticut Innocence Project had done DNA testing on Kenneth Ireland, and aside from proving his innocence, it had pointed to Benefield as the rapist/murderer. Benefield had committed crimes during his time in New York and had been incarcerated at least once.
In January of this year, Kevin Benefield, now 47, was tried and subsequently convicted for the sexual assault and murder of Barbara Pelkey. On March 23, he was sentenced in New Haven Superior Court. At the sentencing were Barbara Pelkey’s four adult children who gave statements about exactly how much Benefield had taken from their entire family. One of her daughters, Kathryn Davitt, spoke about one of the “forgotten people” affected by the crime. Pelkey’s husband and the children’s father, Arthur Pelkey Sr., was one of them. He took his own life not long after losing his wife. The children grew up without either of their parents, and grew up hating the wrong man for dismantling their family. Arthur Pelkey Jr. stated that he recognizes that he will live longer than both of his parents. The children said that their children were also victims, deprived of relationships with their grandparents that many children have. William Bloss also spoke on behalf of his client, Kenneth Ireland, who chose not to attend the sentencing. “The victim here was Barbara Pelkey…but what happened to Ken Ireland was just unimaginably cold. Another man put him (in jail) and another man had the key to his jail cell and refused to let it go, and what happened was wrong.”
Benefield and his attorney spoke briefly. His attorney said that Benefield was incarcerated in New York for another crime at the time that Kenneth Ireland was convicted and had been unaware that another man was serving time for his crimes. Benefield himself said that he apologized for the pain of the Pelkey children and said he understood it; he himself had grown up without a father.
Judge David Gold spoke to the family and then to Benefield before handing down his sentence. He said that years on the bench and countless cases had taught him never to say he felt the families’ pain or knew what they were going through. He did say, however, that he recognized that sometimes, closure never comes. To Benefield, he said that he couldn’t stress enough that all of the pain and suffering to all involved was his fault and his fault alone. “Your crime didn’t end when you left the factory…for 21 years, you woke up and went to sleep knowing that an innocent man…was sitting in prison.” He said that he found it very hard to believe that Benefield was unaware of Ireland’s incarceration. Judge Gold went on to tell him in front of a full and silent courtroom that “spending the rest of your life in prison won’t be easy”, but that whatever pain, misery, and hardship Benefield will face in the future is just a “drop in the bucket” of what he put the Pelkey family through, and that no punishment could be enough. With that statement, he sentenced Kevin Benefield to the maximum sentence allowed under Connecticut State law, sixty years in prison.