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Jury begins deliberations in case of state trooper accused of killing Detroit teen

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

A jury is now deliberating the fate of former Michigan State Trooper Mark Bessner, who faces murder and manslaughter charges in the August 2017 death of Detroit teen Damon Grimes.

Bessner tasered Grimes from a police car during a chase through an east side Detroit neighborhood. Grimes crashed and flipped the ATV he was driving, and ultimately died of blunt force head trauma.

The prosecution and defense gave their closing arguments to the jury Monday morning, following a three-day trial last week. Evidence included audio and video footage of the chase, which lasted less than a minute, and Bessner testifying in his own defense.

The case hinges on Bessner’s assertion that he believed Grimes was possibly armed and dangerous. He testified that he thought he saw Grimes move his hand toward his waistband during the chase, and thought he had gun and was planning to ambush the troopers. Grimes was not armed.

Bessner’s defense also claimed that state troopers on patrol in Detroit through the Secure Cities initiative had been warned about the dangers of ATVs in neighborhoods, suggesting they were linked to violent crimes. In particular, Bessner claims troopers were warned about an armed robbery suspect who fled on an ATV and matched Grimes’ description. He also said he thought Grimes was older than 15.

Bessner’s attorney, Richard Convertino, told jurors that Grimes “came right at the patrol car, and veered off at the last minute.” He said Bessner saw Grimes reach toward his waist as if he might have a gun, and made a split-second decision to use his taser.

“Was he baiting them? Was he ambushing them? Was he just a stupid, scared kid? That’s the tragedy here,” Convertino said.

Convertino called Bessner’s decision to use his taser a “tragic, horrendous decision, but a decision he was forced to make.” He asked jurors to question the taser evidence in the case, suggesting it wasn’t as clear-cut as prosecutors made it seem and may not have “effected” Grimes. Regardless, he told jurors they must assess Bessner’s actions through his eyes at the time:  “You are not to view these actions in 20/20 hindsight. You are to view his actions in that moment, in that instant in time.”

Convertino also told jurors their duty is to follow the law, not seek vengeance. “My greatest fear is that because a life was lost here, you’ll feel you have to make it right,” he said. “You can’t do that in a criminal courtroom.”

But Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Matthew Penney said Bessner offered no evidence for his claims that he feared for his life, and multiple recordings of the incident and its aftermath tell a different story.

“How do you explain what Mark Bessner was doing? What he was actually saying?” Penney said, telling jurors that Bessner never called for back-up, warned his partner about a possible gun, or divulged his fears to other officers in the immediate aftermath of the crash.

“In this stressful, high-intensity situation, he sounds like he’s calling football plays,” Penney said. “Where’s the explanation? There is none. Sure you can be wrong about how much danger you’re in, but where’s the reasonability?”

The jury did not reach a verdict after deliberating for several hours Monday. They resume deliberations Tuesday.

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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