A jury on Friday found Kevin McCormick, 53, of Breezy Point, Minn., guilty of second-degree manslaughter in pulling down Jerry Benedict's tree stand while Benedict was sitting in it, causing him to sustain injuries that eventually led to his death.
After the guilty verdict was read, Tom Benedict, the late Jerry Benedict's son, let out a sigh of relief and said, "Thank God."
Across the room, McCormick stood expressionless as the verdict was read, but then moments later let out, "Oh my God."
Shane and Troy Zarns, members of Jerry Benedict's 2010 hunting party, patted Tom Benedict on his back as Benedict burst into tears.
After nearly five hours of deliberation, the panel of 12 jurors delivered its decision in the Clearwater County courtroom filled with Benedict's family and members of his 2010 hunting party, as well as McCormick's wife and other deer hunters who testified as witnesses in the case.
District Judge Paul Rasmussen ruled that McCormick be held in Clearwater County Jail until his pre-sentencing hearing is held April 11.
Benedict refused to leave the courtroom until he saw McCormick handcuffed and escorted from the courtroom by a bailiff.
In reaching the guilty verdict, jurors concluded McCormick climbed up Benedict's tree stand on the morning of Nov. 6, 2010, grabbed hold of the tree stand while Benedict was sitting in it and pulled the stand down. This act caused Benedict to suffer eight broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder and caused parts of some of his vertebrae to break off, as medical records revealed.
Benedict was eventually life-flighted to a hospital in Fargo later that evening after he was found by a member of his hunting party lying on a bed at a resort near Naytahwaush, Minn., still dressed in his hunting attire, sweating and having trouble breathing. He died Nov. 24, 2010.
In his closing statement, Clearwater County Attorney Richard Mollin, who prosecuted the case, drove home the idea that Benedict did not fall from the deer stand. Rather, Benedict was pulled out of his deer stand by the explosive temperament of McCormick, Mollin said.
"McCormick had a problem," Mollin said in his closing statement. "Anger got the best of him. He may not have intended Benedict to die, but he wanted him out of there ... He was going to eject him from the area. That was his intent."
Robert Christensen, McCormick's attorney, tried to plant reasonable doubt in the courtroom by raising questions about why no member of Benedict's hunting party heard Benedict complain of any pain after Benedict's stand fell on the morning of Nov. 6. He questioned how Benedict was able to drive away from the scene on his all-terrain vehicle, shoot his firearm once, walk 100 yards through the woods and climb into a different tree stand later that day while suffering from eight broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder. He proposed Benedict's injuries could have only occurred after Benedict fell from a second tree stand later that day, likely due to him drinking while hunting.
He failed, however, to convince jurors that the conduct of McCormick, who admitted to a friend on the morning of Nov. 6 that he had climbed up and grabbed hold of Benedict's tree stand, causing it to tip over, did not set events in motion that eventually led to Benedict's death. Also, there were no witnesses who saw Benedict fall from a second tree stand.
Several members of Benedict's 2010 hunting party testified throughout the week that Benedict was not acting like himself when they saw him roughly two hours after the tree stand incident occurred on the morning of Nov. 6.
Dr. Mark Tieszen, who treated Benedict while he was a patient at the hospital, and Dr. Michael McGee, the medical examiner who conducted Benedict's autopsy, both testified during the trial that Benedict's death was the result of injuries sustained from his fall from a tree stand.
Christensen brought in Dr. Mary Carr, an emergency room physician and educator with HealthPartners Regions Specialty Clinics in St. Paul, on Friday. Carr testified that after reading the medical records and witness testimonies she received from Christensen, it was her opinion that because of the severity of Benedict's injuries, which were seen by doctors on the evening of Nov. 6, as well as witnesses saying Benedict did not complain of any pain in the three to four hours after falling from his tree stand, the injuries could have only occurred after he fell from a second tree stand later in the day on Nov. 6.
But during her cross-examination, Carr admitted she was only given a condensed version of the medical records and testimony statements from Christensen. She also admitted she was hired by the defense to look over the records she was given and would likely be paid roughly $1,500 by the defense for doing so.
Mollin said he believed the jury made the right decision.
"The jury spent an awful lot of time going over the evidence and testimonies from the 18 or 19 witnesses," Mollin said. "All in all, the charge was correct. The verdict is justified by the conduct of McCormick."
Benedict, who was retired and living in Florida in 2010, was 64 years old when he died.