ATV death investigations near 4-month mark

George Hunter
The Detroit News

This story has been updated to correctly identify Dearborn Police Cpl. James Wade and also clarifies the timing of a Dec. 31 lawsuit. 

Nearly four months after 15-year-old Damon Grimes died following a state police chase that ended when a trooper stunned the youth with a Taser, two investigations into the case still are ongoing.

The delay has put on hold a lawsuit against the troopers involved in the Aug. 26 incident, prompting a federal judge to ask what’s taking so long.

Investigations into officer-involved deaths often take longer than normal, although police and prosecutors insist probes involving cops are handled the same as any other case.

State police officials said DamonGrimes did not obey an order to stop driving his ATV illegally in the street on Detroit’s east side. Trooper Mark Bessner, a passenger in the squad car, used his Taser on Grimes, who crashed into a parked flatbed and died from blunt-force head trauma.

“Each case is unique and some are more complicated than others and require more time,” said Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller.

State police officials said Grimes did not obey an order to stop driving his ATV illegally in the street on Detroit’s east side. Trooper Mark Bessner, a passenger in the squad car, used his Taser on Grimes, who crashed into a parked flatbed and died from blunt-force head trauma.

State police suspended Bessner because he allegedly deployed his stun gun from inside a moving vehicle, in violation of department policy. He later resigned.

Two other state troopers — Ethan Berger, who drove the police cruiser, and Jacob Liss, a sergeant who according to police sources removed one of the Taser wires from the crime scene — also have been suspended.

Hours after Grimes’ death, Detroit police and state police launched separate criminal investigations. Both departments turned the results of their probes over to Wayne County prosecutors about a month later, but prosecutors kicked them back for further investigation.

State police submitted their second investigation to prosecutors Thursday, spokeswoman Shanon Banner said.

“(We submitted) the last of our report last week,” Banner said Monday. “However, there is some additional follow-up that (prosecutors have) asked us to look into and we’re continuing to work through those items. So while our report has been submitted, investigation is ongoing.”

Detroit’s probe is winding down, police chief James Craig said.

“We turned our investigation over weeks ago, but prosecutors returned it for more work,” Craig said. “We’re in the process of re-submitting it, which should be soon.”

It’s not unusual for prosecutors to return warrants for more investigation, even in cases that don’t involve police officers.

Banner dismissed the notion that it takes longer to investigate officer-involved incidents.

“As far as the length of time that an investigation takes, I don’t think you can make a general statement about length, as each investigation has its own complexities; no two are the same,” she said.

“Each county prosecutor also has different methods of operation that factor in as well,” Banner said. “From an MSP perspective, our focus for any investigation is to be as thorough and complete as possible.”

Miller said her office met last week with both Detroit and state police officials “to be updated on the progress being made in the ongoing investigations.”

“Once they have submitted their final investigations, (prosecutors) will conduct a separate and independent investigation,” Miller said. “That is our protocol in every police-involved case, and we believe that it is an important part of the process.”

After lengthy police probes, prosecutors’ investigations involving officers often take months. Examples include:

■The death of Janet Wilson. After state police turned over their report into the Jan. 27, 2016, incident, in which Wilson was fatally shot by Dearborn Cpl. James Wade outside Fairlane Mall in Dearborn, prosecutors’ investigation took another six months before the shooting was deemed justified in December 2016, nearly a year after Wilson’s death.

■In December 2015, Dearborn police Cpl. Chris Hampton fatally shot Kevin Matthews, who was wanted for larcenies. Because the shooting happened in Detroit, that department investigated the shooting and turned over the results of its probe three months later, although prosecutors returned it for more work.

On the same day in December 2016 that the Wilson shooting was deemed justified, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said Hampton also acted properly.

■After Detroit police officer Joseph Weekley accidentally shot 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones while raiding her east-side house in search of a murderer, the investigation took months. Weekley was charged with involuntary manslaughter 17 months after the May 2010 incident. The charge was later dismissed by Wayne County Circuit Judge Cynthia Gray-Hathaway after two mistrials.

U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain questioned last month why it’s taking so long to investigate Grimes’ death.

Four days after Grimes died, family attorney Geoffrey Fieger filed a $50 million lawsuit against Bessner. During a Nov. 14 hearing, Drain said: “I’m a little disturbed about the delay in getting a decision on prosecution. It’s not that complicated of a case. It’s pretty straightforward. The facts are not convoluted.”

Two weeks later, on Nov. 28, Drain put the lawsuit on hold until Dec. 31 to allow the investigations to wind down.

Oakland University criminal justice professor Daniel Kennedy agreed it often takes longer to investigate an officer-involved incident, but he stressed: “There’s nothing sinister going on.”

“In the (Grimes) case, it’s complicated by a number of factors,” he said. “First of all, you have several jurisdictions involved, which can lead to bureaucratic inertia. There’s a civil suit, which I’m sure is in the back of everyone’s minds. Everyone’s going to think carefully about the next step.

“On top of that, because of the gravity of the matter, everyone is being very careful,” Kennedy said. “If Joe Citizen shoots someone, it’s different than when Officer Smith shoots someone. That’s not to diminish the value of the victim, but the status of the shooter is different.

“If a citizen shoots someone, he’s not part of a large organization that’s devoted to public safety, so his actions don’t have the same ramifications as a police officer, which has implications on the sense of security citizens have, and their confidence in the police department.

“If a police officer shoots someone, look at all the questions that are immediately raised,” Kennedy said. “He’s representing government, and the implications of a bad shoot by a government agent are far greater than if a regular citizen did the same thing. So everyone is going to proceed very carefully. That’s why it can often take so long to investigate these cases.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN