Dearborn man accused in referee's death to stand trial

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Detroit — A Dearborn man will stand trial in February on charges that he killed a referee with one punch after being ejected from a soccer match in summer 2014.

Bassel Abdul-Amir Saad will stand trial Feb. 23 on a second-degree murder charge for allegedly "sucker punching" the referee, 44-year-old John Bieniewicz, during a June 29 game in Livonia.

Witnesses and police say Saad punched the referee after the soccer official issued him a red card, ejecting him from the game at Mies Park on West Chicago.

Bieniewicz, a Westland resident, died two days later at Detroit Receiving Hospital.

Wayne County Circuit Judge Thomas Cameron on Friday said the Feb. 23 trial date is tentative and requested one of Saad's attorneys, Cyril Hall, to contact the court with his schedule.

The trial initially was scheduled to begin one day later, but Cameron ordered it moved to allow a full week for a trial that is expected to last five days.

Saad was in court Friday for a quick final conference hearing, where prosecutors and his attorneys discussed the trial date as well as submission of witness lists and use of jury questionnaires due to media attention to the case.

Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Erika Tusar said her team has submitted a "lengthy witness list." Cameron gave Saad's defense team until Feb. 3 to submit their list.

Cameron indicated no further hearings are expected to be called in the case before the trial begins next month.

Friday's hearing followed a number of pre-trial motions in the case over the past few months.

Judge Cameron in December ruled that future jurors can see eight closeup autopsy photos depicting deep tissue "layers" of injuries to Bieniewicz's neck and spinal areas.

Referring to one of the photos, Cameron said the picture shows the "strength and power of the punch" resulting in Bieniewicz's injuries and eventual death.

Defense attorneys Hall and Brian Berry said they are concerned the photos will be prejudicial.

"The concern is the duplicitous nature of the photos," Hall said in December. "They ... will appeal to the emotions of the jury rather than the facts."

Hall in October replaced Saad's original attorney, Ali Hammoud.

After the December hearing, Berry agreed: "I don't see how the jury would find them helpful in explaining the injuries."

But Saad's team previously won a legal victory when Cameron ruled that details of a previous assault nine years ago would not be heard by future jurors.

Prosecutors in November sought permission to tell future jurors of a similar soccer-related incident from Saad's past. He struck another player near the head in 2005 during a dispute, when the victim was not looking. He was convicted of assault and battery.

Cameron ruled at the motion hearing in November that Saad's involvement in the prior incident was inadmissible.

Cameron is the second judge to handle this case, which has received national attention.

Earlier in November, Wayne County Judge Cynthia Hathaway recused herself over her own bias in the case — saying she did not feel Saad correctly handled the situation when he was ejected from the game by Bieniewicz. She said because of her feelings she did not think she could guarantee Saad "his due process" of a fair trial.

The defense team in November also sought to have Cameron revisit Hathaway's decision to bind Saad over for trial on a second-degree murder charge. Hall argued that Saad's actions amounted to the lesser charge of manslaughter.

"There was only one punch," Hall said. "And at the time that this particular punch was thrown, there was no discussion, no words or deeds said by the actor saying 'I'm going to kill this person.'"

But Cameron saw it differently.

"I do not find that the circuit court judge abused her discretion based on the accounts I saw," Cameron said.

The judge also ruled that a pair of photos, both reportedly showing Saad driving away from the scene while extending his middle finger, will be allowed into evidence at trial.