Police at odds with Detroit judge over recent rulings

George Hunter
The Detroit News
36th District Court Judge William McConico hears a case at Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit earlier this year.

A rare public spat is playing out in Detroit's 36th District Court that's pitting a judge against police officers who accuse him of being soft on crime.

The judge, William C. McConico, insists some of the criticism is designed to smear him for refusing seven months ago to lower a cop's $1 million bond.

But Detroit police Chief James Craig said the judge is a symptom of a "broken system" that often allows violent criminals back on the street.

The bad blood involves multiple cases that critics say the judge has mishandled.

Craig and other police officers lambasted McConico in May, after the judge granted a $100,000 bond and tether to Ivory Traylor, a habitual criminal who allegedly shot at Detroit police officers.

Traylor, who had a previous armed robbery conviction, cut off his tether and fled to Clinton Township, where he was arrested less than 24 hours later. He's scheduled to stand trial in August on charges of assault with intent to commit murder.

Traylor's attorney, Randall Upshaw, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

McConico argues some of the criticism against him stems from his rejection of a request to reduce bail for a former Michigan State Police trooper. The judge in January declined to reduce the bond of Mark Bessner, who is scheduled to stand trial in October on second-degree murder charges.

Bessner in August 2017 allegedly stunned 15-year-old ATV driver Damon Grimes with his Taser, causing the teen to crash into a flatbed truck. Grimes died of blunt force head trauma, and Bessner later resigned.

McConico's January decision marked the second time he had refused to lower Bessner's bond. He says some police officers are still angry at him — and seeking revenge.

"You've got reckless statements being made that I hate cops," McConico said. "That's crazy. It's absolutely crazy, and it's not true. You've got some officers who are trying to make me look bad because I didn't lower the trooper's bond."

Craig said his criticism of McConico has nothing to do with the Bessner case.

"My problem with him is: His decisions impact what we're trying to do as a police department," the chief said. "When you get judges who are soft on crime, it makes it harder for us to keep the city safe."

In another controversy, Wayne County prosecutors say they plan to appeal McConio's ruling in the May 16 preliminary examination of Lemonte Jackson, who they alleged was involved in the June 25, 2017, shooting of a 16-year-old boy in East English Village. 

McConico ruled there wasn't enough evidence to order Jackson, 19, to stand trial — five months after the judge bound him over for trial on the same charges in a prior preliminary exam. 

Jackson and Ryan London, the 18-year-old alleged trigger man, went through the Wayne County court system twice for the same alleged shooting, which police said occurred in the 4400 block of Grayton after a family argument escalated into a fistfight.

During the brawl, Jackson allegedly told London to shoot the 16-year-old. Investigators say London complied, wounding the boy in the arm and leg.

Jackson and London were arrested two months after the shooting. Following a Dec. 14 preliminary exam, McConico found enough evidence to bind both defendants over for trial on some of the charges, although assault with intent to murder charges against Jackson were dropped.

Prosecutors dropped all charges against London in January because a key witness was unavailable. In March, after the witness was located, charges were also dropped against Jackson, and he was released from jail. The shooting warrants were then reissued so both men would be tried together.

On April 18, Jackson was the passenger in a vehicle that was stopped by a Detroit police officer in the 9th Precinct, police deputy chief David LeValley said.

"While the officer was sitting in her squad car (verifying the driver's license and insurance), Jackson made a video on Facebook Live," LeValley said. "On the video he says he's wanted for a shooting, and he's going to take the officer out because he wasn't about to go to prison. He shows his gun on the video.

"The officer ended up letting them go; she didn't know (Jackson) had a gun," LeValley said. "Then, someone from another police department calls us and says they'd been watching the Facebook Live video. We figured out who (Jackson) was and locked him up for the shooting."

In April, prosecutors charged Jackson with "gang membership felonies," including carrying a dangerous weapon with unlawful intent, and felony firearm.

Vassal Johnson, Jackson's attorney on the gang-related charges, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Jackson and Ryan went through the court system a second time after being recharged in connection with the 16-year-old's shooting.

Following the second preliminary examination for the two men in May, McConico again ordered Ryan to stand trial. But he reversed his earlier ruling on Jackson, saying there wasn't enough evidence presented during the second hearing to bind him over.

"That doesn't even make sense," Craig said. "How can you have one prelim and the judge finds there's enough evidence for the guy to stand trial — and then, on the same case, with the same suspect, the same judge finds there isn't enough evidence for trial?"

McConico said the defendants had a clean slate the second time they appeared in his courtroom.

"On the day I bound the case over for trial (in December), the prosecutors presented enough evidence," the judge said. "On the day I didn't bind it over (in May), they didn't present enough evidence. It's really not that deep.

"They're two separate cases," McConico said. "I can't consider evidence brought in the earlier case, because it's a separate case."

TaTaNisha Reed, Jackson's attorney for the shooting charges, said testimony varied between the two preliminary exams.

"If the testimony was different at one preliminary exam than in the second one, the judge was right in not binding the case over," Reed said.

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller said her office plans to appeal the judge's ruling.

"We believe the judge abused his discretion in not binding over the case for trial based upon the facts and evidence presented," she said.

Jackson is in the Wayne County Jail in lieu of $100,000 bond awaiting a July 25 hearing on the gang membership and firearms charges.

Law enforcement officials have been grumbling about McConico's decisions for months, although the judge insisted the criticism is unwarranted.

"They're trying to get back at me for not lowering the bond on the state trooper," McConio said. "That's all this is."

During Bessner's January hearing, McConico said the request to lower the bond was "offensive" because it was a murder case.

"If someone is accused of second-degree murder and asks for a lower bond, I'd use the same word again," the judge told The Detroit News on Thursday. "It's offensive and disrespectful to come into my courtroom and ask for a lower bond on a murder — whether it's a police officer or a reporter, or anyone."

In the Traylor case, McConico pointed out he wasn't the only judge to agree to the $100,000 bond and tether for the man who had allegedly shot at three Detroit police officers during a May 17, 2017, foot chase. 

McConico said he set the bond conditions based on the recommendation of the Wayne County Pretrial Services Unit. The bond and tether were later upheld by Wayne County Circuit Judge Margaret Van Houten, who told The News Thursday she couldn't comment on the case because she is scheduled to preside over Traylor's trial next month. 

McConico said police officials singled him out for criticism in the Traylor case.

"Why are you not talking about Judge Van Houten? It wasn't my case when (Traylor) cut his tether off; it was hers. She upheld the same bond as me, but the police didn't call you to complain about her, did they? Why is that?"

Craig said he wasn't aware Van Houten had also upheld Traylor's bond.

"If that's the case, then they're both culpable," he said. "When the crime rate goes up, people always look at the police. But there are several layers to the criminal justice system.

"When you've got judges who are making these decisions to let criminals off with low bond, or dropping cases against them after they already said there was enough evidence to make them stand trial, that also makes crime go up. But nobody ever holds them accountable," Craig said.

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