Tragic story of ‘Benji’ still goes on today
BY MARY MITCHELL firstname.lastname@example.org October 30, 2012 1:42AM
Benjamin Wilson, a 17-year-old basketball star at Simeon High School, was shot to death in 1984.
Updated: December 1, 2012 4:28PM
ESPN’s “30 for 30” profile of Benjamin Wilson, the Simeon High School basketball phenom who was shot to death in 1984, dropped a bombshell.
Many of us know the story of how Wilson was gunned down on the street, a couple of blocks from the South Side high school, by two gang-bangers who had tried to rob him. In “Benji,” Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, the film’s directors, cast a shadow of doubt over that version of the tragedy.
The documentary includes a riveting interview with Billy Moore, who was 17 when he shot Wilson. Moore served 19 years of his 40-year sentence and now works for an agency that helps ex-offenders re-integrate into the community.
Not interviewed was Omar Dixon, who was 16 at the time. Dixon was paroled after serving half of his 30-year sentence, but in 2007, he was convicted of armed robbery and is serving a 40-year term.
The documentary is compelling, and it highlights why 10,000 people showed up at a memorial service to mourn Wilson’s death. But “Benji” also raises disturbing questions.
Moore related details about that tragic day that shed a different light on the tragedy. He denied the shooting had anything to do with gangs or robbery, as prosecutors claimed. He also claimed Dixon had nothing to do with the shooting.
According to Moore, Wilson had been arguing with his girlfriend just before the 6-foot-7-inch basketball player shoved him and refused to apologize.
Moore’s reaction to being punked on the street was to open his coat and display a handgun. But Wilson wouldn’t back down and when he lunged for Moore, he shot him twice, Moore said.
After they were arrested, Moore and Dixon signed confessions that included statements about the attempted robbery. The teens later claimed they were coerced into signing false statements.
Murder is murder, and this is not an attempt to defend the indefensible. But it has been nearly three decades since Wilson was killed, and the same conditions surrounding that killing still exist today.
For instance, when young black men kill other young black men, the homicides are often portrayed as gang- or drug-related disputes. But a lot of young black men are getting killed because of incidents similar to the one Moore described.
“What happened here was you had a group of kids who didn’t want to get punked. If they walked away, it’s entirely possible this wouldn’t have happened,” filmmaker Simmons said in an interview with EURweb.com.
If Moore is telling the truth, that would mean the state sent a 16-year-old to jail for a crime he did not commit. Haven’t we heard this story time after time?
Yet in this case, such a terrible wrong won’t be addressed because of Wilson’s celebrity status. The fact that such a stunning accusation is treated like a minor detail reinforces the perception that the criminal justice system uses a double standard.
If Wilson had been an ordinary young man, living an ordinary life on the South Side, it’s a good bet that Moore and Dixon would have gotten a far lighter sentence.
But prosecutors allegedly fabricated a story about a robbery to make sure the teens got a long prison term, and that just breeds disrespect for the system.
Additionally, activists went to great lengths sanitizing Wilson’s image. By the time the case went to trial, jurors were confronted with a victim who was more a messiah than a 17-year-old basketball star.
It took jurors less than two hours to convict Moore and Dixon.
Worse yet, despite all the tears and the harsh penalties, black youths are still getting killed at an alarming rate. In 1984, the city had 669 homicides. On Monday, with the 436th homicide, the city surpassed last year’s total. As in the past, many of the victims are black.
Frankly, the lesson I hope young people get from “Benji” is not how exceptional he was at sports but that he was a human being.
I hope young people see that Benjamin Wilson’s death was tragic because like too many young black men today, he lost his life before he had a chance to fulfill his purpose and his dreams.