New trial begins for former state trooper accused of murder

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published April 11, 2019

 A new trial for former Michigan State Police Trooper Mark Bessner, charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the death of 15-year-old Damon Grimes, began April 10 in 3rd Circuit Court in Detroit. The first trial for Bessner, seen here last October, resulted in a mistrial.

A new trial for former Michigan State Police Trooper Mark Bessner, charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the death of 15-year-old Damon Grimes, began April 10 in 3rd Circuit Court in Detroit. The first trial for Bessner, seen here last October, resulted in a mistrial.

File photo by Deb Jacques

DETROIT — On April 10 in 3rd Circuit Court, a new trial began in the case of former Michigan State Trooper Mark Bessner, who is charged with one count of second-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 15-year-old Detroit resident Damon Grimes.

On Aug. 26, 2017, Bessner and his partner, Ethan Berger, encountered Grimes illegally riding an all-terrain vehicle in the area of Rossini Drive and Gratiot Avenue in Detroit, and gave chase. Bessner fired his Taser at Grimes while both vehicles were going approximately 40 mph. Prosecutors said the shock of the Taser caused Grimes to lose control of the vehicle and crash into a parked car, which brought about his death.

The first trial on the same charges ended in a mistrial after a jury failed to reach a consensus after three days of deliberations last October.

Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Matthew Penney made his opening remarks to begin the new trial. He argued that deploying the Taser was a willing act on the part of Bessner, that it was not a reasonable action on Bessner’s part — and was contrary to the Michigan State Police’s instruction on Taser deployment — and that Bessner knew he would cause great bodily harm by deploying the Taser in the manner he did.

“Damon was a vulnerable rider who had no helmet on,” said Penney. “If someone throws a football at you, pokes you with a stick, or shouts at you, that could distract you and cause you to lose control. But Mark Bessner didn’t throw a football at Damon Grimes or poke him with a stick or shout at him. He chose to incapacitate Damon Grimes and prevent him from controlling his vehicle.”

The prosecution said it will be showing the jury the dashboard camera footage from Bessner’s car, which shows the chase.

The prosecution also said it would be showing a second video from Aug. 12, 2017, of another pursuit involving Bessner in which Bessner can be heard saying of that ATV riding suspect, “I wish we could have gotten close enough to Tase him when he stopped.”

The defense maintains that Bessner and Berger saw Grimes reaching for his waistband during the chase and they believed he was going for a weapon. 

“(What Penney said) is about a quarter of what happened on Aug. 26,” defense attorney Rochard Convertino said of Penney’s opening statement. “(For the police), their lives are at stake every day. That’s why they’re given body armor, batons and Tasers — to protect the public, but Mr. Bessner also has a right to defend himself.”

Additionally, Convertino said in his opening remarks that it was Grimes who initiated the chase and Berger who was driving the police cruiser, arguing that the situation was one Bessner had little control over.

“Damon Grimes chose not to comply, Damon Grimes chose to initiate this chase and Damon Grimes chose to ride a dangerous, unstable vehicle,” said Convertino. “When a (state) trooper or Detroit police officer is trained in what is called the use of force continuum, they are taught when someone comes up on an officer in an aggressive stance that they can use deadly force. … Damon Grimes drove right at the patrol car, which was different than any other ATV encounter they had previously experienced.”

Convertino stressed that the prosecution has to prove the charge of murder beyond a reasonable doubt for it to be a legally justifiable verdict, and Convertino said “this is a case full of doubts.”

“Mr. Penney has to prove each element of this case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Convertino said. “Mr. Penny must prove Mr. Bessner didn’t have a right to defend himself. He also must prove this death was a direct result of his actions and that his act was a substantial portion of why that ATV crashed.”

Penney said that Bessner was trained to assess quickly changing circumstances and react appropriately.

“He was trained to assess a situation and ask if he was putting the other person at risk of harm,” Penney said. “Was it reasonable to shoot a Taser at an ATV rider? That is the question (the jury) should be asking after each part of the testimony.”

Additionally, Penney argued that at no point in the video can Grimes be seen reaching for his waistband, nor did either of the troopers make any remark about fearing he was reaching for a weapon during the chase or immediately after.

“The video goes on for six minutes after the crash, and you can hear the radio chatter on Ethan Berger’s body mic,” Penney said. “What you don’t hear is any threat reported and no report of weapons being suspected. So why? Why use this kind of force?”

Call Staff Writer Brendan Losinski at (586) 498-1068.