‘I believed I used to be alone’ — victims of disgraced San Antonio lawyer Mark Henry Benavides get a second likelihood

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‘I thought I was alone’ — victims of disgraced San Antonio lawyer Mark Henry Benavides get a second chance

As many as 500 women who were represented by a disgraced, now-imprisoned San Antonio attorney could have their convictions overturned as Bexar County prosecutors review their cases with the help of the public defender’s office.

The two agencies, normally on opposing sides, are working together to ensure justice for the victims of disbarred lawyer Mark Henry Benavides, who was once a candidate for state district judge.

“It’s a very important function and a priority in our office,” said District Attorney Joe D. Gonzales.

Benavides, 50, was convicted in 2018 of six counts of human trafficking and coercing his clients to have sex with him. He threatened that if they did not, he would withhold legal services, sabotage their cases and make sure they went to prison.

It was a case that rattled San Antonio. The intense media coverage prompted a change of venue to Floresville in Wilson County, where a jury heard testimony from six women Benavides had represented in prostitution or drug cases.

Their testimony established a pattern — Benavides would pick them up from their homes or from jail, then take them to a hotel or a meeting room behind the courtroom to have sex.

A 51-year-old victim goes through paperwork at her San Antonio home on June 18, 2020. The woman was arrested in 2013 for DWI under suspicious circumstance.

(Josie Norris /Staff Photographer | Express-News)

The evidence against Benavides included portions of 246 videos the lawyer recorded of himself having sex with his clients. A member of the jury collapsed after watching some of the images on the first day of the trial. The juror was replaced by an alternate.

  • Former San Antonio attorney Mark Benavides is serving 80 years in prison for forcing former clients into having sex. In this 2018 file photo he sits in Judge Dick Alcala’s courtroom to address his other pending pending cases. Photo: Billy Calzada /San Antonio Express-News / San Antonio Express-News

    Former San Antonio attorney Mark Benavides is serving 80 years in prison for forcing former clients into having sex. In this 2018 file photo he sits in Judge Dick Alcala’s courtroom to address his other pending pending cases.

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    Former San Antonio attorney Mark Benavides is serving 80 years in prison for forcing former clients into having sex. In this 2018 file photo he sits in Judge Dick Alcala’s courtroom to address his other

    … more

    Photo: Billy Calzada /San Antonio Express-News

Photo: Billy Calzada /San Antonio Express-News

Former San Antonio attorney Mark Benavides is serving 80 years in prison for forcing former clients into having sex. In this 2018 file photo he sits in Judge Dick Alcala’s courtroom to address his other pending pending cases.

less

Former San Antonio attorney Mark Benavides is serving 80 years in prison for forcing former clients into having sex. In this 2018 file photo he sits in Judge Dick Alcala’s courtroom to address his other

… more

Photo: Billy Calzada /San Antonio Express-News

‘I thought I was alone’ — victims of disgraced San Antonio lawyer Mark Henry Benavides get a second chance

The jury found Benavides guilty of all six counts and sentenced him to 80 years in prison. Benavides will have to serve 30 years before becoming eligible for parole.

Alison Dahlberg, director of the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit, has worked with Michael Young, chief defender for the Bexar County Public Defender’s Office, to identify “potentially hundreds of victims” of Benavides and re-evaluate their criminal cases. The cases stretch back to 2000.

Both said Benavides’ actions cast a cloud over the entire legal profession in Bexar County.

“He ran for judge and he used that as part of his operation, his judicial candidacy, as coercion,” Young said.

“This was someone within our legal community,” Dahlberg said. “It was important for us to correct a wrong from someone in our bar.”

So far, two women represented by Benavides have had their convictions overturned and their records expunged.

  • “I felt young and dumb and powerless. Lawyers are supposed to help you, not hurt you.” A 32-year-old woman victimized by a local attorney recalls her ordeal from her early 20s.

    “I felt young and dumb and powerless. Lawyers are supposed to help you, not hurt you.” A 32-year-old woman victimized by a local attorney recalls her ordeal from her early 20s.

    (Josie Norris, The San Antonio Express-News / Staff Photographer | Express-News)

  • Another victim, now 51, was arrested in 2013 for DWI under suspicious circumstances. She needed a lawyer and was appointed Mark Benavides, who had flirted with her months prior while she was at the courthouse for her son’s court proceedings.

    Another victim, now 51, was arrested in 2013 for DWI under suspicious circumstances. She needed a lawyer and was appointed Mark Benavides, who had flirted with her months prior while she was at the courthouse for her son’s court proceedings.

    (Josie Norris /Staff Photographer | Express-News)

Both told their stories to the Express-News, on condition their names not be published. Their accounts paint a harrowing picture of how the justice system went awry in their cases.

One of the women, now 32, covered her eyes and stifled tears as she recounted her ordeal.

She was 20 when she found herself facing possible prison time. She had been a passenger in a car when police found marijuana during a traffic stop and no one claimed it. Everyone in the car was charged with drug possession.

The woman said a friend referred her to Benavides in 2008 for legal representation. At first, Benavides would text or call her “when he was lonely or bored,” she said.

“He eventually started asking me for small stuff, meet up for lunch, stuff like that,” the woman said. “I felt like he was coming on to me, and I didn’t like it.”

She said she rejected his overtures. Things changed the day she had a court appearance on her drug charge.

“He took me to a small room down a back hallway, and at that point he told me if I didn’t perform a sexual act on him right then and there, he would not only kill my case, but try to worsen my case,” she said, her voice trembling, even 12 years later. “So, I did.”

She told Benavides she did not want to have sex with him, but “he still made me,” she said.

“He said he knew police and judges and I didn’t know who to try to ask for help,” she said. “I thought I was alone.

“I felt young and dumb and powerless. Taken advantage of, really,” the woman recalled. “Your lawyer is supposed to help you, not hurt you.”

The woman said Benavides kept trying to meet with her after that episode, but she was afraid. When she had to see him, she would bring her mother along.

“I was never alone with him after that,” she said.

The woman said that, eventually, Benavides stopped talking to her about her drug case except to urge her to plead guilty. It dragged on for nearly four years.

“I felt like he wasn’t even trying to help me anymore, but I already had given him $3,000 and I couldn’t afford another lawyer,” she said.

The woman pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of marijuana. She was granted probation and successfully completed it. She’s pleased that the conviction is now off her record, thanks to the DA’s and public defender’s offices.

  • Public Defender Michael Young is working with the Bexar County District Attorney's Office Conviction Integrity Unit to review hundreds of Benavides’ cases with an eye toward overturning unfair convictions.
  • Marisol Morales is a case manager with the Bexar County Public Defender's Office working with victims of now-disbarred attorney Mark Benavides.
  • A now 51-year-old woman arrested in 2013 for DWI and was appointed Mark Benavides as her attorney. She said she rejected his advances and later lost her license, her car, job and apartment. She remembers thinking “if I don’t go along with this dude, he’s going to screw me in other ways. And he did.”
  • Clockwise from top:

    Public Defender Michael Young is working with the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit to review hundreds of Benavides’ cases with an eye toward overturning unfair convictions.

    (Josie Norris /Staff Photographer | Express-News);

    Marisol Morales is a case manager with the Bexar County Public Defender’s Office working with victims of now-disbarred attorney Mark Benavides.

    (Josie Norris /Staff Photographer | Express-News);

    A now 51-year-old woman arrested in 2013 for DWI and was appointed Mark Benavides as her attorney. She said she rejected his advances and later lost her license, her car, job and apartment. She remembers thinking “if I don’t go along with this dude, he’s going to screw me in other ways. And he did.”

    (Josie Norris /Staff Photographer | Express-News);

    “I know there’s others out there, I know. It’s not fair for them to live in any kind of guilt. He was in the wrong- no matter what people did (to be in trouble and become his client),” said a 32-year-old woman who claims to be one of Benavides’ victims. “He was picked to help people and he didn’t help a single person … He was bad.”

    (Josie Norris /Staff Photographer | Express-News)

But the experience left her deeply scarred.

The second victim whose record has been expunged met Benavides when she was at the Bexar County Courthouse with her son, who was facing an assault charge. Benavides gave her his card. Six months later, she was charged with driving under the influence, and she hired him to represent her.

She said Benavides flirted with her and offered to help her incarcerated son.

“At first, I thought he was playing around,” recalled the woman, now 51. “When he started throwing my son in there, I started taking him serious … He started to get aggressive. I knew he was serious. He wanted to meet up.”

Benavides texted and called her, describing in explicit terms the sex acts he wanted her to perform.

She was incredulous. “He’s a lawyer running for judge!”

She remembers him saying, “If you aren’t going to play the way I want you to play with me, I’m not going to help you.”

When she pushed back, he was true to his word.

“He wasn’t playing around. He wouldn’t help me for anything,” she said.

One after another, she lost her driver’s license, her car, her job, her apartment.

She couldn’t afford another attorney — she was afraid to hire one anyway — and she remembers thinking to herself, “If I don’t go along with this dude, he’s going to screw me in other ways. And he did.”

In the end, she had to hire another lawyer, because Benavides was behind bars by the time her case came up.

She was convicted of the DUI charge and was sentenced to two years’ probation, which she completed in 2016.

Even though her record has been expunged, she’s still trying to get her driver’s license back and pay off fines and fees associated with the original charge. She said she won’t ever be able to forget what Benavides did to her.

“It was creepy, throwing advances like that, and he wants me to put out for him to help me. Who does that?” she asked. “But I was thinking of freedom for my son, freedom for me. But why should I have to do that?”

Marisol Morales, a case manager at the Public Defender’s Office, has been working with the two women and others Benavides abused.

“It’s not something that’s far in the past,” Morales said. “It’s something that is very present for them.”

Dahlberg and Young want more of Benavides’ victims to come forward to have their cases reviewed.

Former clients who were victimized by him are asked to call Morales at 210-335-0701.

The woman who had been charged with drug possession encouraged victims to make that call. It’s the reason she agreed to speak out about what happened, despite her continuing fear of Benavides.

“It’s not fair for them to live in any kind of guilt,” she said. “He was in the wrong — no matter what people did.”

A 32-year-old woman victimized by a local attorney says she  was in her early 20’s when she experienced a string of events were she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Photo: Josie Norris /Staff Photographer / **MANDATORY CREDIT FOR PHOTOG AND SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS/NO SALES/MAGS OUT/TV

A 32-year-old woman victimized by a local attorney says she  was in her early 20’s when she experienced a string of events were she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

(Josie Norris /Staff Photographer | Express-News)

Elizabeth Zavala covers county and state courts in San Antonio. To read more from Elizabeth, become a subscriber. [email protected] | Twitter: @elizabeth2863