Ex-MSP trooper sentenced to 5-15 years in ATV death

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News
An emotional Mark Bessner looks toward the Grimes family and apologizes to them during his statement in court Monday. The former Michigan State Police trooper was sentenced to 5-15-years in prison for the death of teenage ATV driver Damon Grimes.

Former Michigan State Police trooper Mark Bessner was sentenced Monday to 5-15 years in prison for causing the death of teenage ATV rider Damon Grimes by Tasing him during a pursuit.

Bessner apologized to the family of the 15-year-old, saying, "I'm truly sorry."

"It was a tragedy (Grimes) died that day," said Bessner. "It is a tragedy that he will never graduate from high school. I think about it every day. If there was a time machine I could jump into and change it, I would."

But Wayne County Circuit Judge Margaret Van Houten, who exceeded the sentencing guidelines of 19-38 months, slammed Bessner, saying he "abused the public trust" and that his actions contributed to the community's distrust of police.

Van Houten scolded Bessner, telling him the person fleeing that day was a youth and not a grownup.

"(Bessner) is a grown man who should have considered his actions that day," the judge said, noting that Bessner had received specialized training and possesses a law degree. "He was warned by superiors to be more careful with his Taser use."

The judge also noted that Bessner "did not mention" at the scene that he believed Grimes had a weapon. 

Grimes' older sister spoke about the loss of her younger brother during the victim impact portion of the sentencing hearing.

"You have devastated this family for life. It leaves us feeling numb," said Dezanique Grimes. "There will be no more hugs and kisses from him. We will not see him graduate. Our lives are empty and will never be the same. You took him from us."

One of Damon Grimes' aunts, Helen Stinson, read a letter from his parents, Monique Grimes and John Hughes, telling Bessner, who faced her in the courtroom, that his actions "were wrong."

"(Damon) was not a threat to you or anybody else," said Stinson.

Grimes was described as a kid who had not been in any trouble and was an excellent student.

"He was so full of life. He was our source of happiness," read the parents' letter. "We would like for you to understand as parents our lives haven’t been the same because of your actions on that day. Every day our lives is a blur to a dark empty space. We struggle to make it as well. As parents, we are broken."

Monique Grimes, left, the mother of Damon Grimes is consoled by a family member during the sentencing of Mark Bessner for the death of her son Damon Grimes.

The parents asked Bessner to "think of our son when your children graduate ... go on their first date ... have their first little kiss ... attend college. Think of our son who won't ever have any of this because of your actions. A child is a terrible thing to lose."

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Matthew Penney asked Van Houten to go beyond the sentencing guidelines and render a "just" sentence "that is going to punishment this man for what he did."

Bessner's defense attorney Richard Convertino renewed his arguments Monday during the sentencing hearing that his client was "wrong" but that he thought Grimes had a gun.

"He was wrong, he was wrong," said Convertino. "It took less than two seconds to make a decision in a rapidly evolving, tense situation."

A jury found Bessner, 46, guilty of involuntary manslaughter last month for shooting Grimes with the Taser on Detroit's east side on Aug. 26, 2017. The incident fueled anger in the community and led the Michigan State Police to limit pursuits in Detroit.

The high-profile case had been monitored by observers across the nation because of the comparisons drawn to other "deadly force" cases involving law enforcement and African American males.

The former trooper's first trial ended in a hung jury; in Bessner's second trial, jurors chose the manslaughter conviction instead of second-degree murder.

During the trial, Convertino said his client thought the teen was a threat to him and his partner. But prosecutors said Grimes was only riding his ATV that day, in violation of a city ordinance, and was not a threat to the troopers. 

The teen was found unarmed after he crashed the ATV into a parked truck on Rossini Drive near Gratiot. He died shortly afterward from blunt force injuries at a nearby hospital.

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Matthew Penney told jurors that Bessner and his partner were not justified in chasing Grimes because he was not a threat to them.

Penney said in his closing arguments during the trial last month that Bessner possibly didn't like ATVs being driven in the city, referring to another incident in which the trooper allegedly chased ATVs riders on Fort Street near downtown Detroit on Aug. 12, 2017, nearly two weeks before the deadly chase of Grimes.

Jurors in the second trial were shown video of Bessner chasing a group of other ATV riders on Fort Street near downtown Detroit and saying he wanted use his Taser on them.

"I was kinda of hoping we'd get close enough that we could Tase that guy once we stopped," a voice that has been identified as Bessner says on the video.

Bessner did not take the stand in his own defense, and his defense attorneys did not call any witnesses to testify on his behalf. The trooper's partner also did not testify during the trial last month instead invoking his constitutional right not to have to take the stand.

Helen Stinson, left, aunt of Damon Grimes, and his sister Dezanique Grimes, 27, listen during the sentencing of Mark Bessner in the death of the 14-year-old ATV driver.

Grimes family spokesman Oliver Gantt said he feels that the Aug. 12 incident convinced the jury of Bessner's guilt and showed the former state trooper to be a "voracious" Taser user.

Grimes' mother, Monique Grimes, filed a $50 million federal civil lawsuit against Bessner in 2017.  Bessner was sued in 2013 for use of alleged excessive force. He also has been sued twice for incidents involving the use of a Taser.

A new federal lawsuit was filed in March against Bessner, another officer and a supervisor on the Michigan State Police involving an April 13, 2016, police chase and stop in Grosse Pointe.

The driver said, in his lawsuit, that he was Tased "several times" by Bessner, including to the face.

The man alleges Bessner "shoved (his face) under water and prevented him from breathing."


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