Gray to represent himself at his upcoming narcotics trial

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When he was released from prison in 2017 after serving 18 years for manslaughter, New London native Bennie Gray Jr. said he wanted to be a lawyer by the time he was 45.

He doesn't have a law degree, but in a way, Gray, 39, has met his goal ahead of schedule.

Gray, who is back in prison on drug charges, has decided to represent himself at his upcoming trial in New London Superior Court. If convicted of possession of narcotics and possession of cocaine with intent to sell, he faces an enhanced sentence of up to 30 years in prison due to his criminal record.

On Monday, as jury selection got underway, he introduced himself as Bennie Gray Jr. "from the New London area" and began questioning a group of prospective jurors in the courtroom of Judge Hunchu Kwak. The judge had told the prospective jurors that Gray was representing himself. 

"Do you believe two people can look at the same situation and see it different?" was one of the questions he posed. He wore a blue button-down shirt and chinos and no handcuffs or leg irons that would tip off the jury pool that he is incarcerated.

Attorney William T. Koch Jr., who had filed and argued a series of pretrial motions attacking the police work in the case, is serving as "standby counsel," sitting behind Gray in case he needs advice.

Gray had only tasted freedom briefly after serving 18 years in prison for the 1995 shooting death of DeJohn Strong in New London. Gray was engaged in the drug trade at the time, according to court records.

Sentenced to 23 years in prison, he was granted parole in January 2016. He was released to a Hartford halfway house in May 2016, but was returned to prison on Nov. 28, 2016, after leaving the halfway house after curfew.

He remained incarcerated until April 24, 2017, when he was released and was granted supervised parole on June 7, 2017, according to the Department of Correction.

Groton Town Police arrested him on drug charges on Sept. 5, 2017, but the state decided to not prosecute the case because they didn't want to disclose the identity of a confidential informant.

In the case scheduled to go on trial beginning April 2, New London police charged Gray on May 9, 2018, with selling 0.8 grams of crack cocaine to 28-year-old Brian Drobnak. Undercover narcotics officers said they observed the transaction at the Broad Street Gulf gas station before pulling over both Drobnak and Gray's cars.

Drobnak was found in possession of crack cocaine, which he admitted he bought from a man named "G Cuz" with two $20 bills and a $10 bill, according to the police. They seized the cash from Gray along with his cellphone.

Gray has challenged several aspects of the police case in pretrial motions, including a phone application officers used to communicate while conducting surveillance of Gray and Drobnak and the fact that the police deposited the cash it seized from him into a bank account before his lawyer had the chance to test it for cocaine residue, DNA or fingerprints.

Gray will have the opportunity to cross-examine the police officers and detectives when they take the witness stand next week.

k.florin@theday.com 

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