Robert Bennett doesn’t look like a man fighting for the little guy.
Dressed in a striped navy suit, with round tortoise-shell glasses tucked into his breast pocket, he looks like he belongs at the head of a boardroom table, or on the links of a private country club.
But he has made a handsome living fighting and winning for average people who have had run-ins with the powerful.
Bennett represented the grieving family of Philando Castile, who was shot by police near Minneapolis last summer during a traffic stop. Castile’s death garnered international attention after his girlfriend broadcast the shooting’s aftermath on Facebook Live.
Although the St. Anthony police officer who shot Castile was acquitted of manslaughter, Bennett negotiated a $3 million settlement with the city of St. Anthony, a Minneapolis suburb.
Bennett’s latest client is the family and fiancé of Justine Ruszczyk, an Australian woman who was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer July 15. There will almost certainly be a wrongful death lawsuit following the investigation.
“I don’t know of a civil rights lawyer who wouldn’t want to take this case. This is a case that we can hopefully use to effect real change,” he said.
Ruszczyk, a yoga and meditation instructor, called police twice that night because she believed a sexual assault was taking place in the alley behind her home. The 40-year-old was killed when she approached the arriving squad car, with Officer Mohamad Noor shooting her from the passenger seat, through the driver’s side window.
Noor, a second-year beat cop, has declined to be interviewed by investigators.
So far, the only first-hand witness account is from Noor’s partner that night, rookie officer Matthew Harrity, who was driving the squad car. He told the state agency investigating the incident that Noor was startled by a loud noise in the alley moments before Ruszczyk showed up at the car window.
‘I don’t like to lose’
On the 30th floor of a sterile office tower in downtown Minneapolis, Bennett works from a corner office where diplomas, awards and newspaper clippings cover the walls. What stands out the most, however, is a two-foot-long preserved and stuffed fish that he caught with his dad in 1984.
The fish is festooned with duplicates of checks — all of them seven figures — that he’s collected over years while winning cash settlements and verdicts for his clients.
“I don’t like to lose. And I don’t like bullies,” he said during a sit-down interview in the boardroom of his firm, Gaskins Bennett Birrell Schupp, where he is a managing partner.
On this day, Bennett doesn’t have much time. He’s shuttling between phone calls with reporters and TV interviews in the boardrooms of his firm.
With most of Ruszczyk’s family in Australia, he’s playing the role of spokesman — but he doesn’t sound like one. He speaks deliberately, directly and doesn’t seem to deflect any questions, even when asked whether he’s chomping at the bit to cross-examine Harrity.
“You have to be patient, but I am, yes,” he said.
The Minneapolis police chief, Janeé Harteau, resigned Friday after telling reporters the day before that the shooting should never have happened and promising to work toward justice in the case.
But in high-profile police shooting cases, criminal consequences for officers involved can be the exception, not the norm.
Bennett said he understands that police have a tough job to do, but he doesn’t have much sympathy for them.
“It is the job that they signed up to do. The fact is that not everyone who signs up to do it should do it,” he said.
“The officers who get scared (easily) should go be accountants. They shouldn’t be peace officers with guns. Because that’s how 40-year-old Australian spiritual healers get shot.”
Bennett said that for him, it’s less about cash windfalls and more about forcing meaningful changes.
In 2007, an uncovered suction drain in a swimming pool trapped a 6-year-old girl who had sat on it while swimming. The child survived, but she was severely and permanently injured. Bennett negotiated a settlement north of $8 million. He said more importantly, the case prompted changes to the certified pool operators’ manual, the Red Cross lifesaving manual and pool safety statutes in several states.
The fighting spirit may have grown during Bennett’s youth, when he spent his time boxing and wrestling, but it was his first legal case that really lit a fire in his belly.
“The first case I ever had was a guy that was beaten up by a small (police) agency,” Bennett said. “They kicked him so bad that they frayed his renal artery and had to take out his kidney. … It’s kind of a chicken thing to do to a handcuffed guy.”
He added, “People didn’t sue the police back then. I just didn’t like it. That’s why I don’t like bullies.”
Looking for more than a settlement
After that case, Bennett said, “It kind of snowballed. You do one thing right once, and then you have to do it again,” he said.
And he has.
Earlier this year, Bennett won a $2 million settlement for a man who suffered severe injuries after being mistaken for a suspect, kicked by a Minneapolis police officer and attacked by a police dog.
Bennett said he sees real potential far beyond a cash settlement for Ruszczyk’s case.
“We know Justine didn’t have a gun. We know Justine was a pacifist … and that she was only interested in potentially saving a woman in the alley,” he said.
“Usually you’ve done something wrong … to cause the intersection of your life and the police,” he explained. “That’s not true in this case. And I think as things unfold, you’ll see that I am right about a lot of things.”