Alleged killer's plea deal tossed

Randal William Benton is accused of murder in the killing of his estranged wife, Treva Benton.

St. George -- A man accused of gunning down his estranged wife in the parking lot of a Summerville restaurant in 2010 will stand trial next week after a judge rejected his plea deal on Friday.

Randal William Benton, 48, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Treva Dawn Wedge-Palmer Benton on Oct. 30, 2010, in the parking lot of Perkins Family Restaurant on Trolley Road.

Benton, shackled and wearing an orange and white jumpsuit, was in court Friday to enter an Alford plea in the case that would have brought him a 40-year sentence with no chance of parole.

In an Alford plea, the defendant does not admit the act but acknowledges that the prosecution could likely prove the charge.

However, after 1st Circuit Assistant Solicitor Russell Hilton presented the facts of the case and Judge Diane Goodstein asked Benton if those were the facts, he said he didn't know, prompting Goodstein to reject the plea.

Michelle Wedge, sister of the victim, and Michael Palmer, the victim's son, both walked out of the courtroom upset after the decision, and Benton's mother and stepfather were escorted to their vehicle.

Earlier in the hearing, Benton, who said he dropped out of school after eighth grade, said he understood that by entering the plea, he would receive a 40-year sentence and that he believed there was enough evidence to convict him if the case went to trial.

Hilton then summarized the events surrounding the homicide:

The Bentons, who had been married for several years, were separated and Randal Benton had moved out of the house months before the incident.

On the day of the shooting death, he helped Treva Benton, 36, move out of their house, left for several hours, then returned looking for her.

When a neighbor told him she was out with a new boyfriend, he went home, smashed a photo of himself with her and changed his clothes.

He then went to a Trolley Road bar for a couple of hours, returning to the house around 10 p.m.

At the house, Benton told Michael Palmer that his truck had broken down and he needed a ride. He left the house with Treva Benton, who told her son to call her in 20 minutes if she had not returned, and if she didn't answer, to call police.

Treva Benton drove Randal Benton to the Perkins, where the couple were seen by employees arguing in her Chevrolet TrailBlazer. When the manager and another employee went outside to ask them to leave, Benton pulled out a gun and shot his wife eight times, then ran away.

The next morning, he called his mother from a gas station in Alabama using an attendant's cellphone, and when he couldn't tell her where he was, Benton put the clerk on the phone. His mother told the clerk that Benton might be wanted for murder, and the clerk pushed a panic button.

Benton was arrested without incident and brought back to South Carolina, where he has been incarcerated since.

Bullets in Treva Benton's body matched a gun found on Benton when he was arrested, Hilton said.

After Benton said he was not sure of the facts as Hilton had presented them, Goodstein asked him again how he pleaded, and he said "guilty," but she said she could not accept the plea.

After the hearing, Scott Palmer, Treva Benton's ex-husband and the father of her two sons, said the judge's rejection of the plea was "a total surprise."

"We thought we got it (the case) over with. None of us wants to see the horrible details that will come out in trial." Palmer said. "He (Benton) agreed to the deal knowing full well what would happen."

Palmer said the Benton marriage was tumultuous for years, and that Randal Benton did not get along with his stepsons, Palmer's sons Michael, 19, and Jeremy, 15. Jeremy has autism, Palmer said.

Treva Benton is buried in the Palmer family plot under the name Treva Wedge-Palmer, he said, because "once a Palmer, always a Palmer."

Palmer said the original plea offer was for 30 years without parole, but the family rejected that.

"In 30 years, he'll be 78 and he might still be alive," Palmer said. "But I seriously doubt he will survive 40 years. That was the reason we went for that.

"This could have been done and over and my sons would never have to look into his face again, and they wouldn't have to look over their shoulders in the future. This is heart-wrenching and nerve-wracking for everybody."

Palmer said he was told that a jury will be selected Tuesday and the trial will start Thursday.

Hilton and the defendant's lawyer, John Loy, had a pretrial hearing immediately after the plea was rejected, but afterward, both declined comment.

If found guilty of murder at a trial, Benton could be sentenced to 30 years to life with no chance of parole.