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Elizabethtown man who took plea deal in 2012 homicide wants new trial

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LANCASTER, Pa.–A Lancaster County man who was sentenced up to 56 years in prison for the December 2012 killing of 17-year-old Samantha Heller wants a new trial.

Benjamin Klinger, 22, of Elizabethtown, plead guilty in August 2014 to third-degree murder for killing Heller, in exchange for a 28-to-56-year prison term.

Klinger claims his attorney gave him bad advice and declined to fully investigate potential defenses. Klinger wants to withdraw his plea and go to trial.

On Dec. 4, 2012–Klinger, with Heller as a passenger, drove his car more than 100 mph into a guardrail on Route 283 in Rapho Township. Realizing Heller was still alive, Klinger held her down and smothered her to death.

Prosecutors said Klinger had a history of abusive behavior toward Heller, his former girlfriend.

During the post-conviction relief hearing, Assistant District Attorney Travis S. Anderson called attorney Christopher Lyden regarding Klinger’s claim that Lyden didn’t spend enough time on his case. Lyden outlined the steps he took to investigate the case — including speaking to potential witnesses and hiring experts — and testified that he would’ve been ready to take the case to trial if Klinger had not chosen to plead guilty.

Lyden explained the challenges Klinger would have faced at trial, including many Commonwealth witnesses who would have testified about the volatile nature of Klinger’s relationship with Heller, and Klinger’s prior threat to intentionally crash his car while she was a passenger.

Lyden further testified that it was Klinger’s decision to plead guilty, and that Lyden didn’t specifically advise him to accept the plea offer.

Klinger himself took the witness stand, claiming that he did not understand the significance of his plea and that he didn’t realize he could hire a different lawyer.

On cross-examination by Anderson, Klinger admitted to having stated at the time of his guilty plea that he understood the significance of his plea, and that he was satisfied with Lyden’s services.

Also at the hearing, Klinger’s appeal lawyer, Shannon McDonald, called Klinger’s father to testify about alleged evidence that Lyden didn’t look into.

Judge Miller will rule on the appeal, after the attorneys file briefs outlining their arguments.