Local News

Victim's Family Furious as Ex-Death Row Inmate Nears Parole

Posted November 30, 2007 7:54 p.m. EST
Updated November 30, 2007 11:36 p.m. EST

— A man once sentenced to die for an Onslow County slaying was released on a weekend leave in Raleigh Friday night and is scheduled to be paroled next month.

Jon Lee Benson shot and robbed restaurant manager Melvin LaVecchia in August 1985 as LaVecchia made a night deposit at a Jacksonville bank. Benson was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to die.

The state Supreme Court vacated the death sentence in 1988, saying the sentence didn't fall into line with similar cases. Benson's sentence was reduced to life in prison.

"We figured he would be in jail for life," said LaVecchia's son, Larry LaVecchia.

But before North Carolina introduced structured sentencing in 1994, life sentences rarely meant prisoners spent their lives behind bars.

After spending 22 years in prison, Benson is scheduled to be paroled on Dec. 21 after participating in a program that transitions inmates from prison to work release to freedom.

Mary Harrop with the parole commission said Benson was allowed into the program two years ago because of his good behavior in prison.

About 500 inmates, most of them serving life sentences, participate in the early-release program, according to Harrop.

Benson is serving the end of his sentence at Wake Correctional Center in Raleigh. He also has gotten married during his incarceration. Benson says prison made him a much different person than the one who shot and killed Melvin LaVecchia 22 years ago.

“It doesn’t matter if you spend a day in here, it changes you,” Benson said. “But it hasn’t changed me for the worst. If anything, it’s changed me for the better because I’ve seen the worst that humanity has. And so now, I don’t want to be like that.”

Benson worked for LaVecchia at the Po Folks restaurant in Jacksonville. One summer night in 1985, he waited for LaVecchia to make his nightly bank deposit. When he did, Benson was there to rob him.

He shot him in the legs with a 12-gauge shotgun, severing a major artery. LaVecchia died at the hospital, and Benson took off with $757 in cash.

“I wasn’t trying to kill him,” Benson said. “If I was trying to kill him, naturally a person’s going to shoot him in the … an area of the body where you’re going to kill the person. It’s just unfortunate that’s what happened.”

LaVecchia's family is furious about Benson's pending release.

"A convicted murderer getting out? I mean, they say you play this game, you pass the test, you get out. This just isn't right," Larry LaVecchia said.

Family members also are upset that they were never notified that Benson was up for parole.

“They basically said since we didn’t register online they had no way to notify us,” Larry LaVecchia said. “But yet the information was given to them in 1986 when there was no Internet.”