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Prosecution, defense make opening arguments in former MSP trooper murder trial

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Wayne County prosecutors told jurors Tuesday that former Michigan State Trooper Mark Bessner action's went “beyond the pale” when he tasered 15-year-old Damon Grimes during a police chase through a Detroit neighborhood in the summer of 2017.

Bessner’s defense attorney countered the trooper “reasonably believed” that Grimes presented a threat, and that he used appropriate force during a “tense, uncertain, rapidly-evolving situation.”

The two sides presented an outline of their cases during opening arguments in Bessner’s trial on second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges. That’s because Grimes flipped his ATV and died after Bessner tasered him from a moving police car during the chase.

Assistant prosecutor Matthew Penney said that troopers were chasing Grimes for what amounted to a traffic infraction. Penney said Grimes posed no real threat, and Bessner violated MSP policy by tasering the teenager on a moving vehicle, ultimately leading to his death from blunt force head trauma.

“The crux of the issue [is]…was it reasonable to use that amount of force?” Penney told jurors. “I’m very confident you will say…that was beyond the pale.”

But Bessner’s attorney, Richard Convertino, told the jury “that’s not what happened.” He said that Grimes approached the officers on his ATV “in a very aggressive manner.”

“This was not just a nuisance pursuit,” Convertino said.

Convertino said that in a high-crime area, the troopers had reason to be wary of Grimes. He repeatedly emphasized the teenager’s size—6 foot 1 and over 200 pounds—to suggest Grimes looked older than he was. And he noted that Bessner and his partner had reason to believe Grimes may have been armed, suggesting that Grimes’ hand dropped “in a suspicious manner” toward his waistband during the chase. Grimes was unarmed.

Convertino said Bessner made a reasonable use of force decision under split-second circumstances, and the “only just and fair verdict is not guilty on all counts.”

Prosecutors showed in-car and body camera video footage of the chase and its immediate aftermath. It showed the chase from several perspectives, and audio of Bessner saying to first responders, “He slowed down and we tased him…and he crashed out,” as officers attempted to revive Grimes.

Grimes’ mother, Monique, left the courtroom in tears after one video showed her son’s lifeless body in the street. Monique Grimes also briefly took the stand to recount what happened on the evening Damon died. So did Detroit police officer Jalen Williams, a witness to the crash whose body camera caught some of the incident and its aftermath, as did John Harris, a nearby resident and witness.

Oliver Gantt, a neighborhood activist and spokesman for the Grimes family, said they have some concerns about the makeup of the jury. It skews older, with just two African Americans among the eight men and eight women who currently make up the entire jury pool.

“We don’t want this to be one of those situations where they say ‘Oh, we had a majority white jury, a couple of blacks on the jury, trying to make it a race issue or anything of that nature,” Gantt said. “In the minds of the family, they want justice in the sense that they want to see this guy that killed their son convicted. Whether it be manslaughter or it be murder, you know, they want to see this guy convicted for what he has done to this young man.”

Gantt also took issue with the defense’s attempts to portray Grimes as older-looking and therefore more dangerous than he was.

“Whether he was 15 or whether he was 30, the size didn’t matter,” Gantt said. “The fact remains that there was someone riding on an ATV, and this someone just happened to be a 15-year-old kid.”

The prosecution has a list of 40 potential witnesses to call in Bessner’s trial, which is expected to continue well into next week.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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