The man who shot and killed activist June Knightly and injured four others on February 19, 2022 near a protest at Normandale Park, will serve life in prison.
The life sentence for Benjamin Smith, 44, was handed down Tuesday, April 18 by Circuit Court Judge Christopher Marshall in a case that survivors say is a grim reminder of the dangers of white supremacy and unchecked political extremism. Smith will serve consecutive sentences totaling 55 years for each of nine counts that include second-degree murder, first-degree attempted murder, and assault with a firearm. He will be eligible to request parole after serving 55 years.
In a packed courtroom, shooting survivors recounted horror and lingering PTSD as they described the events that unfolded that night.
Knightly, known as “T-Rex” in the activist community, was among a group of women doing traffic control a few blocks from Normandale Park in Northeast Portland for a planned protest against police brutality. She was fatally shot by Benjamin Smith, who advanced on the group, yelling misogynist slurs. Witnesses said they tried to de-escalate Smith’s anger and get him to back off, unsuccessfully. Smith opened fire on the group, injuring four other people before being disarmed by another person who fired back at Smith.
Smith initially pleaded not guilty, but later entered a guilty plea to all nine criminal charges against him, avoiding a trial.
One of the shooting survivors, who goes by “DEG” was shot in the neck and left paralyzed, requiring months of hospital care, before returning home to be cared for full time by her parents.
Appearing remotely via video conference call, DEG described losing quality of life, while also grieving Knightly’s death.
“I feel I am alive because of the sacrifice she made in that moment,” DEG said, using a ventilator. “The majority of my coping skills are no longer accessible. It has only been through intensive speech therapy that I’m able to speak today. I used to love to sing and I miss the sound of my own laugh… I’ve lost the future I saw for myself.”
“I have a feeling you will continue to be a voice,” Judge Marshall responded. “I hear a strong voice.”
Leslie, DEG’s mother, appeared in court, noting her family has spent well over $100,000 to reconfigure their home to be wheelchair accessible. She said she and her husband take turns caring for their daughter, who “can never be left alone.”
During victim impact statements, Marshall permitted speakers to use abbreviated names, or none at all, citing their concerns of online harassment or retaliatory violence.
Allie, who sustained four gunshot wounds, said even surviving a mass shooting won’t deter her or others who were there that night from fighting against white supremacy.
“What transpired that night is a stain on the fabric of my life,” Allie told Smith. “I remember asking you that night, if you really felt good about intimidating a bunch of women. I found you pathetic and enraging… Our strength emasculated you and you tried to destroy us for it.”
The Normandale Park shooting underscored a rise in politically-motivated violence across the nation, but it also highlighted lingering tension among protesters, protest supporters, and the Portland Police Bureau.
Through a statement read by a friend, a 19-year-old volunteer protest medic working at the scene that night recalled being threatened with arrest by police for rendering aid to the gunshot victims, including Smith.
In a collective press release issued before Smith’s sentencing, survivors criticized
PPB for its initial characterization of the incident, which incorrectly described the incident as a confrontation between “a homeowner and protesters.” Survivors and witnesses said PPB’s news release gave the impression that Smith acted in self defense, rather than the unprovoked attack that occurred.
“This is a very complicated incident, and investigators are trying to put this puzzle together without having all the pieces,” a PPB release about the shooting stated, noting witnesses were “uncooperative” with police on scene.
Nathan Vasquez, a prosecutor with the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, said he reviewed video footage captured by a helmet-mounted camera worn by one of the traffic control workers that night.
“From that video and from that investigation, it is abundantly clear that those safety volunteers did everything in their power to de-escalate and avoid a conflict,” Vasquez told the court. “Unfortunately, Mr. Smith would not have that.”
Dajah, a friend of Knightly, who was wearing the helmet-mounted camera and sustained a gunshot wound from Smith’s gunfire, conveyed palpable fury while addressing the courtroom.
Judge Marshall allowed her to play audio from the video footage that captured the moments before and immediately after gunfire broke out.
“I believe I’m sitting here today because the world is full of people who look away,” Dajah said, citing “complacency and indifference” toward suffering. “For just a few minutes, I will not let you look away.”
John Sarre, Smith’s attorney, spoke on Smith’s behalf.
“Mr. Smith knows he can’t take back his actions, as much as he wishes he could,” Sarre said.
“There are no words and Mr. Smith does not believe he can express the unfathomable remorse he has for these folks.”
That set off anger within the courtroom.
“Nothing? You’ve got nothing?! Go fuck yourself,” Dajah called out, before abruptly exiting the courtroom. Others followed, calling Smith a coward before walking out.
Smith, who appeared in court Tuesday in a wheelchair, is scheduled to be transferred to the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility before the state determines where he’ll serve out his sentence.
Vasquez noted Smith, who was shot during the Normandale confrontation, is “still recovering from an extensive medical condition” and will need evaluation before going to prison.