No change of venue for ex-trooper in trial for ATV death

Former Michigan State Police trooper Mark Bessner sits in the courtroom of Judge Margaret Van Houten Friday afternoon, August 24, 2018, during his final pre-trail hearing. Bessner is charged with murder in the death of Detroit teen Damon Grimes in an ATV accident last summer.

A judge denied a request Friday to move the trial of the former Michigan State Police trooper charged in the death of a Detroit teen last summer.

Defense attorney Richard Convertino, who is representing Mark Bessner, told Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Margaret Van Houten that he wants the trial moved to a new location because of the large amount of media covered the case has garnered.

Convertino said the reporting has been "sensational" and "deleteriously will have an effect on a fair trial."

In declining Convertino's request, Van Houten said she hasn't seen where prospective jurors remembered news stories. The judge said she could also order a large enough jury panel and address the issue of news coverage on the jury questionnaire.

The change-of-venue motion was one of a series of issues Convertino and Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Matthew Penney argued before Van Houten during a pretrial conference in advance of the Oct. 22 trial for Bessner on second-degree murder and two counts of involuntary manslaughter  in connection with the death of Detroit teen Damon Grimes.

Victim Damon Grimes loved ones listen to attorney argue as they sit behind defendant Mark Bessner Friday afternoon, August 24, 2018, during his final pre-trail hearing. Bessner is charged with murder in the death of Detroit teen Damon Grimes last summer.

Grimes, 15, died from injuries he suffered after he ran his ATV into a parked truck Aug. 26, 2017, after losing control of it when Bessner used a stun gun on him near Gratiot and Rossini Drive during a chase. 

Penney argued for admitting as evidence statements and video in several prior cases where Bessner and his partner are accused of excessive force, including Taser use, against other civilians.

 According to court records from the prosecutor's office reviewed by The Detroit News, Bessmer "punitively" used his Taser against other civilians on July 14, 2017,  April 12, 2016, and Sept. 17, 2014. He was "intimately" involved in another "punitive tasering" incident Aug. 18, 2017, eight days before he chased Grimes, according to Wayne County court records. 

Bessner also was the subject of lawsuits filed in Wayne County Circuit Court on allegations of brutality. Bessner was suspended Aug. 28 in the wake of the Grimes case and resigned Sept. 22.

Van Houten said she would allow some statements and video in some of the cases but not all, saying that in one of the cases cited by the prosecution, Bessner wasn't the one who Tased the suspect and in another case, the video did not capture the incident.

Defendant Mark Bessner, right, leans over to talk with co-council Rick Convertino during the hearing.

Penney said Bessner's actions toward the other civilians before the Grimes incident shows  "a pattern" of actions by the former trooper.

Convertino said Tasers are tools for law enforcement and that "the use of a Taser can occur when there's active aggression."

Prosecutors also want to allow the testimony of Michigan State Police union head Jay Morningstar, who allegedly "counseled" Bessner on the use of Tasers.

"All of them together (show) a pattern starts to emerge," said Penney. "That's what's so important in this case."

Convertino objected, saying the union head's statements are not relevant and "could be highly prejudicial ...and have no probitive value."

Van Houten agreed with the prosecutor that jurors should hear from Morningstar. "I believe it's highly relevant and I'm going to allow that testimony," she said.

The judge also said she will not rule yet on whether the jury should be instructed on the question of whether Bessner acted in self-defense. 

Van Houten scheduled another hearing for 1:30 p.m. Sept. 28 on the pretrial issues.

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