ITHACA, N.Y. — The fate of an accused Cayuga Heights murderer is being decided Wednesday afternoon as  jurors deliberate whether to convict him of a charge that could land him in prison for as little as five years or a murder charge that could could incarcerate him for the rest of his life.

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Benjamin Cayea admitted on the witness stand that he caused the death of Cornell student Shannon Jones when he strangled her on Thanksgiving.

Judge Joseph Cassidy confirmed for the first time Wednesday morning that jurors can convict Cayea of second-degree manslaughter instead of second-degree murder.

If Cayea is convicted of manslaughter — meaning he unintentionally caused Jones’ death– he will face a prison sentence of five to 15 years.

If the jury determines that Cayea intentionally and consciously caused Jones’ death and convict him of second-degree murder, he will face 15 years to life in prison.

Defense: ‘Can you say how you would act? I can’t put myself in those shoes.’

Defense attorney Matt Van Houten admits that Cayea lied multiple times to police officers following the death of Jones. He admits that Cayea caused her death when he choked her. He admits that Jones and Cayea had a tumultuous relationship.

Defense attorney Matt Van Houten makes closing statements in Benjamin Cayea’s murder trial, telling jurors that Cayea loved Shannon Jones and never intended to kill her
Defense attorney Matt Van Houten makes closing statements in Benjamin Cayea’s murder trial, telling jurors that Cayea loved Shannon Jones and never intended to kill her

But he said Cayea would never have intentionally killed a woman he intended to marry and start a family with.

“It’s easy to look at the relationship between Ben and Shannon and say they shouldn’t have been together,” Van Houten said. “Who among us can say that they have never ignored what the brain was telling them and followed their heart?”

He said that evidence presented by the prosecution regarding two domestic instances between Jones and Cayea cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt — that even the two witnesses who mentioned the instances have varying accounts of what happened.

He said that even though Cayea admitted to pinning Jones on a bed on one occasion and pushing her while she allegedly attacked him, it does not prove a cycle of abuse or that he had intent or motive to kill her.

“The prosecution apparently wants you to believe that Ben went to Thanksgiving…Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house and brought back a plate of food for Shannon and then he went out again and bought her some tissues and then came home and decided to kill her. Does that make sense to you?”

During the trial, Cayea testified that he was choking Jones at her request —  something he said they regularly did for sexual pleasure — when she lost consciousness, fell to the ground and died.

Related: Man accused of Cayuga Heights murder says his confession was a lie

Van Houten said Cayea lied to police the night Jones died — telling police that he snapped and killed Jones and that the incident did not involve sex — to protect her. Even though he admitted to police that Jones was involved in unusual sexual activity, Van Houten says Cayea didn’t want police to know how she died.

“You can see the headlines, ‘Cornell student dies in sexual encounter.’ I don’t think that’s how he wanted her to be remembered” Van Houten said.

Van Houten said Cayea did not perform CPR on Jones because he didn’t have to be a medical professional to know she was dead and he intended to kill himself by jumping off a cliff that night.

Cayea testified that his friend of nearly 20 years, Jacob Ives, talked him out of committing suicide and called the police instead.

“Can you say how you would react in that situation? I can’t put myself in those shoes,” Van Houten said.

Prosecution: ‘He was angry with her and he wanted her dead.’

Deputy District Attorney Andrew Bonavia stood in silence for 60 seconds during closing statements. At the conclusion, he reminded jurors that forensic pathologist James Terzian testified that it would have taken Jones 2 to 3 minutes to die from asphyxiation after she blacked out.

Deputy District Attorney Andrew Bonavia makes closing his statement in Benjamin Cayea’s murder trial.
Deputy District Attorney Andrew Bonavia makes closing his statement in Benjamin Cayea’s murder trial.

He said the wounds on Jones — which included three hemorrhages on her head that Cayea and Terzian could not explain — are proof that Jones’ death was the result of a violent attack from Cayea.

“In that minute — in that 2 or three minutes — he was angry with her and he wanted her dead,” Bonavia said.

He went on to say that Cayea did not call 911 or try to help Jones because he made sure she was dead before leaving their apartment that night and said Cayea’s reasons for not helping Jones are not realistic.

“Can you imagine a situation where you would not call 911? It’s just unfathomable,” Bonavia said.

The only evidence or testimony that suggests that Jones’ death was an accident — Bonavia said — was Cayea’s testimony that her wounds were from a sexual encounter.

Bonavia said Cayea has the most to lose in standing by the story he told police the night Jones died — a story he said Cayea conveniently changed 11 months after her death.

The police confession only happened because Cayea knew he’s been caught, Bonavia said. The defendant was not interested in protecting Jones’ reputation.

Related: Man accused of Cayuga Heights murder says his confession was a lie

“That may be true that some things are gray, but somethings in life are black and white. What’s black and white in this case is that the defendant, Ben Cayea, got angry at Shannon Jones — that he got angry at her so much –that he put his hand around her throat, smothered her face, and choked her for two to three minutes… ” Bonavia said. “Ben Cayea just kept choking her and strangling her. That shows his intent…that you just want to do that until that person is not breathing.”


Round-up of previous coverage

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Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.