Samuel Benda is a 19-year-old from Burnsville who's facing serious prison time. Well, the part about prison time is certain; the same can't be said of the "19-year-old" part.
Benda is facing two felony counts for his relationships with teenage girls: One, a criminal sexual conduct charge for having sex several times with a 15-year-old girl, and another, a charge of possession of child pornography for having nude pictures of a different 17-year-old girl.
But Benda's parents say nothing he did was illegal because, they claim, he's not 19 -- he's 17. In 2005, Benda was adopted from Sierra Leone, and he had no official birth certificate, according to his parents, Jim Benda and Kae Martin.
Now Benda's trial will turn on whether or not his age can be determined as 17 or 19, and a lot is riding on that detail: The charge of criminal sexual conduct carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
After coming to America, Benda faced some bullying, mostly from black American students, according to a 2008 Star Tribune profile. But the teenager adjusted to American life after his soccer skills and musical ability -- Benda plays drums, guitar, and sings -- became public. Benda has since listed himself on "ExploreTalent.com," a self-generating website for aspiring models and musicians.
Benda was making friends. Some of them, it seems, were of the opposite sex.
Over last summer, fall, and winter, Benda had sexual contact -- including vaginal and oral sex -- on three separate occasions with a 15-year-old girl, according to the complaint from the Dakota County Attorney's Office.
When the relationship ended, Benda had threatened to use Facebook to share pictures and videos of he and the girl having sex, according to the complaint. When police searched Benda's phone, they didn't find any of those pictures or videos, but they did find pictures of Benda with another girl.
That girl, a 17-year-old at the time, is depicted naked with Benda's hands on her breasts and crotch in two pictures on Benda's phone, the complaint states.
The second charge, of possession of pornographic work involving minors, carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Last week, Benda's lawyers told the Dakota County District Court judge that the defendant was not 19, but 17, and couldn't be charged with these felonies. Martin, his adoptive mother, told the Pioneer Press that Benda should be released.
"My son shouldn't be in an adult jail," Martin said. "My son shouldn't be facing going to an adult prison."
Monica Jensen, a spokeswoman for the Dakota County Attorney's Office, told City Pages the case would go forward, and that the office had filed papers in court regarding Benda's age as an adult. Jensen estimated it could take up to 90 days for the judge to make a ruling on how to proceed.