Mistrial declared in case of former state trooper

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published October 31, 2018

 Former Michigan State Trooper Mark Bessner appears in 3rd Circuit Court in Detroit Oct. 23. A mistrial was declared Oct. 31 in the trial of Bessner for his involvement in the death of 15-year-old Detroit resident Damon Grimes.

Former Michigan State Trooper Mark Bessner appears in 3rd Circuit Court in Detroit Oct. 23. A mistrial was declared Oct. 31 in the trial of Bessner for his involvement in the death of 15-year-old Detroit resident Damon Grimes.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 Bessner’s attorney, Richard Convertino, argued that Bessner feared for the safety of himself and his partner because Bessner thought he saw Grimes reaching for his waistband during the pursuit. The jury could not reach a verdict and a new trial will begin Nov. 7.

Bessner’s attorney, Richard Convertino, argued that Bessner feared for the safety of himself and his partner because Bessner thought he saw Grimes reaching for his waistband during the pursuit. The jury could not reach a verdict and a new trial will begin Nov. 7.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 In the courtroom, video from the dashboard camera of Bessner’s patrol car shows the pursuit of Grimes.

In the courtroom, video from the dashboard camera of Bessner’s patrol car shows the pursuit of Grimes.

Photo by Deb Jacques

DETROIT — A mistrial was declared in the case of former Michigan State Trooper Mark Bessner after the jury could not reach a verdict.

A pretrial conference in the case will take place at 11 a.m. Nov. 7 in 3rd Circuit Court in order to set the date for a retrial.

Bessner allegedly inappropriately deployed a Taser at a suspect riding an all-terrain vehicle, 15-year-old Damon Grimes, causing Grimes’ death. On Oct. 29, following closing arguments of Bessner’s trial — in which he was accused of one count of second-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter, the jury entered into deliberations and continued to debate the trial’s outcome until Oct. 31.

The incident in question occurred at approximately 5:30 p.m. Aug. 26, 2017, in the area of Rossini Drive and Gratiot Avenue in Detroit. Two State Police troopers, Mark Bessner and Ethan Berger, assigned to the Metro South Post, attempted to stop a driver, identified as Grimes, on a four-wheeler for alleged reckless driving. The driver of the ATV refused to stop, according to the Michigan State Police, and a pursuit began eastbound on Rossini.

In the course of the pursuit, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office said, Bessner improperly deployed his Taser at Grimes as both vehicles were in motion at high speed. Prosecutors said the Taser caused Grimes to lose control of the ATV and crash into a parked vehicle, killing him due to blunt head trauma.

The trial was overseen by 3rd Circuit Court Judge Margaret Van Houten.

Prosecutor Matthew Penny said Bessner was directly responsible for Grimes’ death and played dashboard camera footage from Bessner and Berger’s patrol car that showed the pursuit.

“You can hear nothing strange in the audio … no signs of distress,” said Penny. “At the end, the (patrol) car goes to the left of Damon and you can see (the ATV’s) left tire in the (dash cam) video. (Grimes’) left hand goes out of frame for less than a second — I’d be shocked if it’s even half a second — and then you hear a click. That is the Taser being deployed.”

Bessner was represented by attorney Richard Convertino. Bessner claimed that he saw Grimes reaching toward his waistband, possibly for a weapon, so he deployed the Taser out of fear for he and his partner’s safety. It was later determined that Grimes was unarmed.

Convertino argued that although Grimes’ death was a tragedy, that did not make Bessner a murderer.

“My fear is that because a life was lost you need to make it right and someone has to pay,” Convertino said to the jury. “But you can’t, not in a courtroom. … We can’t right a wrong with another wrong. (Bessner) didn’t know who was in front of him, he didn’t know he was only a boy, he didn’t know it was only a joyride, he didn’t know what his intentions were. … (Bessner) made a decision in the moment.”

Four eyewitnesses were called to testify, including Detroit police officer Jaylan Williams, who drove up to the scene while on patrol and witnessed the crash. None of the witnesses said Grimes’ hands ever left the handlebars.

Expert witnesses also were heard during the trial, including a mechanical and electrical engineer who could explain how Tasers such as the one Bessner used work, a medical expert from the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office and a self-defense trainer for the Michigan State Police.

Bessner’s partner at the time of the incident, Berger, was excused from testifying, although his report on the matter was included in evidence.

Penny said there is nothing in either evidence or testimony to suggest the situation was escalating and giving Bessner reason to fear for his safety,

“Consider the audio,” Penny told the jury. “Does the defendant sound like someone in a tense, uncertain or rapidly evolving situation?”

The prosecutors further stated that deploying a Taser in that scenario was reckless and dangerous.

“Bessner’s (Taser) training said to consider the environment and likelihood of a dangerous fall or injury,” Penny said. “No one on God’s green Earth will tell you it’s a good idea to shoot a Taser at someone not wearing a helmet and going that fast.”

The bulk of Convertino’s defense hinged on the concept that Bessner made the best decision he could with the information he had in that moment. Additionally, he said Bessner was acting in his role as a peace officer, as his goal was to stop Grimes before reaching the nearby busy street of Gratiot Avenue.

“Was Mark Bessner justified?” Convertino asked the jury. “Did he believe he or his partner were in danger of great bodily harm? That is the question: Was he justified in that split second? … If you believe he was, there is no need to consider anything after that.”

Convertino also asked the jury to consider what he believed to be inconsistencies regarding the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s report regarding the probes that would have hit Grimes when struck by a Taser.

“In the autopsy, one probe was in (Grimes’) back sticking up and to the right and the other was in his hair,” said Convertino. “The medical examiner said the probes come out easily. How did they stay in after this horrific accident? … The first drafts of the autopsy reports didn’t mention the probes; only the final drafts did.”

Convertino speculated the sharp veer to the right that caused Grimes to crash at high speed into the parked vehicle could have been caused by him trying to turn right into a driveway that led into a nearby field at the time of the crash.

Convertino reiterated during his closing remarks that Bessner’s fear for his and his partner’s lives was validated in the moment.

“Trooper Bessner had no idea what was in the mind of Damon Grimes,” Convertino said. “Mark Bessner said what he was thinking at the time was, ‘What is going on?’ ‘Why did he come at us?’ ‘Why didn’t he stop?’ ‘Why did he reach his hand down?’”

Penny rebutted by saying the defense team was being inconsistent and couldn’t decide on what Bessner’s reasoning was; whether it was saying it was a self-defense case because Bessner said Grimes had a gun or that Grimes was a danger because he was driving quickly toward Gratiot Avenue or whether there was some conspiracy on the part of the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office. Penny argued the jury members should keep the evidence at the forefront of their minds.

“How do you explain the video?” Penny continued. “It’s not, ‘Let’s get inside Bessner’s mind.’ It’s ‘What did we hear?’ He doesn’t get on the radio and say ‘dangerous suspect heading our way.’ He just says ‘chasing an ATV.’ He doesn’t say anything in the recording about a gun; not before or after the crash. He doesn’t say it over the radio, then the Detroit police car shows up and he does nothing to warn them about possible danger (of an armed suspect). The first time he mentions anything about a gun was after the ambulance left and after the camera was off.”

Penny went on to say that Bessner’s tone was casual in the recording and not consistent with someone who thought they had just escaped death. While Convertino said Bessner and his fellow troopers were nervous after hearing about two cases in which an ATV was used by a dangerous suspect, Penny said these cases were weeks or months earlier and there was no indication Bessner had these cases in mind when they began to pursue Grimes.

“Bessner couldn’t recall when he had first heard about these other ATV cases. It was weeks or months before,” Penny said. “(The jury) heard from a Detroit police officer who worked in that neighborhood, and he didn’t know anything about dangerous ATV suspects, only considering them a nuisance."