In August 2017, 15-year-old Damon Grimes was riding his ATV. Mark Bessner, a Michigan State Police (MSP) trooper, thought Grimes was reaching for a weapon and fired his taser at Grimes. The teenager crashed his ATV into a van and died. A little more than 2 years after the tragedy, the Grimes family settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the MSP for $12 million.
The stage for the settlement had been set in May when Bessner had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Even though sentencing guidelines recommended a sentence of 19-38 months, the judge on the case, Margaret Van Houten, went for the maximum penalty allowable—5 to 15 years in prison. “It is the few officers like you who have caused the distrust of police officers that plagues our community in Detroit, the state of Michigan, and throughout the country,” Judge Van Houten lectured Bessner at his sentencing.
The MSP had sought to distance itself from Bessner at the outset of the case, condemning his action. Even though Grimes had been riding his ATV illegally, there was nothing to suggest he was a threat and even if Bessner’s perception of a gun had been accurate (which it was not), MSP policy is crystal-clear that tasers are not to be fired at a moving vehicle. Taser use is intended to keep someone in custody who is resisting arrest.
Furthermore, the Bessner trial revealed the officer saying that he wished he could have used a taser in other ATV incidents. “Mark Bessner knew that firing a taser at Damon Grimes created a very high risk of him dying,” said assistant prosecutor Matthew Penney. “Is he an adrenaline junkie? Got something against ATVs?…I don’t know.”
Bessner declined to testify in his own defense. His attorney, Richard Convertino, sought to make the case that being in a neighborhood that had a reputation for high crime rates and ATVs had put the police in the area on edge.
But MSP’s clear denunciation of Bessner’s use of the taser and records showing they had previously sought to suspend him for taser abuse likely worked to eliminate any potential juror sympathy.
All of which put the Grimes family in a strong legal position in their own case against the state of Michigan, represented by the Attorney General’s offices. Even so, the legal proceedings were extensive, with over 40 depositions taken. Finally, the AG office and the Grimes family reached an agreement on the $12 million figure. Two-thirds of that money will go to the family, with the other one-third to their legal team.
The Reverend W.J. Wideout had organized protests after Grimes’ death to raise awareness of the situation. Rev. Wideout said that while nothing could bring Grimes back, “this will send a message to other police officers that they cannot get away with blatant murder.”