Tree stand displayed as testimony continues in north-central Minnesota manslaughter trial
BAGLEY - Silence filled the room as each of the 13 jurors filed into the former courtroom in the Clearwater County Courthouse Tuesday for an up-close look at the tree stand that fell to the ground Nov. 6, 2010, while Jerry Benedict was sitting in it.
Made of galvanized steel piping, the stand resembled the scaffolding window washers sometimes use on the side of city buildings. A chair with a seat cushion resting on it sat on top of a platform made of plywood. A railing formed a perimeter around the chair. A dark-colored canvas wired to the railing hung down, concealing three sides of the chair.
In one corner of the room stood Tom Benedict, the late Jerry Benedict's son, who as the jury viewed the stand, would occasionally lower his head and stare at the floor.
On the opposite side of the room was Kevin McCormick, the man accused of causing Benedict's tree stand to fall, which allegedly caused Benedict to sustain injuries that ultimately led to Benedict's death.
Nearby stood McCormick's attorney, Robert Christensen, and Clearwater County Attorney Richard Mollin, who is prosecuting the case.
It was during Tom Benedict's testimony on the stand Tuesday morning as the prosecution presented its case that Mollin requested District Judge Paul Rasmussen allow the jury take a look at the tree stand exhibit in the old courtroom.
After the jury viewed the tree stand, they were escorted back to the courtroom and the second day of the McCormick trial continued.
A second tree stand
Both the prosecution and defense acknowledge a series of events occurred:
On Nov. 5, 2010, McCormick, a hunter from Breezy Point, Minn., who recently purchased land southwest of Zerkel, Minn., confronted a group of hunters who were preparing their tree stands on public land located near McCormick's property. This group of hunters was the same party Benedict hunted with.
Sometime during the morning of Nov. 6, Ben Meister, McCormick's friend and hunting partner, walked over to the tree stand Benedict was sitting in and talked to him.
Meister then left, and later, McCormick drove an all-terrain vehicle over to Benedict's tree stand and talked to Benedict, who was still sitting in his tree stand.
At some point during their meeting that morning, Benedict's stand fell down with Benedict in it. McCormick made a 911 call to the Clearwater County Sheriff's Office. Benedict left the scene on his all-terrain vehicle.
Benedict was later seen by some members of his hunting party, who reconvened for lunch around noon on Nov. 6 and who noted Benedict seemed quieter than usual.
During that same lunch break, Troy Zarns, a member of Benedict's hunting party, cleaned Benedict's .308-caliber rifle by removing mud from the gun's barrel, and went with Benedict to test fire his firearm. Benedict shot his firearm once.
Also during the lunch break, Benedict walked with Zarns to a second tree stand - a different one than the one he fell from that morning - located fewer than 200 yards from the lunch site. Both Zarns and Benedict came back to the lunch site after looking at the second tree stand.
Benedict was seen later on the evening of Nov. 6 by Lyle Paulson, a member of his hunting party, who saw Benedict lying on a bed at the Pinehurst Resort in Naytahwaush, Minn., where Benedict, Paulson and others were staying. Paulson asked someone at the resort to call 911 for an ambulance.
Benedict was later life-flighted to a hospital in Fargo and was treated for a series of serious health problems over the course of 18 days.
Benedict died Nov. 24, 2010.
As the trial continues, it will be up to the jury to decide if McCormick caused Benedict's tree stand to fall while Benedict was still sitting in it on the morning of Nov. 6, causing Benedict to sustain injuries from that fall that ultimately led to his death.
Or, if Benedict did not sustain serious injury after falling from the tree stand on the morning of Nov. 6, but instead decided to hunt from a second deer stand later that day, from which he fell from, causing him to sustain serious injuries that ultimately led to him needing to be hospitalized.
Norm Madson of Fairfield, Calif., said for the past four years he has traveled to southern Clearwater County to hunt on his friend's property.
Madson, a witness who testified Tuesday, said he hunts with a small group of hunters on private property located near McCormick's land and near the general area where Benedict's hunting party hunts.
He said he did not know McCormick, but said he knew Benedict because Benedict would stop by his hunting group's site the day before hunting opener to talk about deer hunting.
When Madson saw Benedict on Nov. 5, Madson said "He looked healthy and happy-go-lucky."
On Nov. 6, Madson said he elected to hunt on state land north of McCormick's property.
While sitting in his deer stand that morning, Madson said he heard the voices of two hunters talking back and forth. Then he said it was quiet in the woods for several minutes until he heard an all-terrain vehicle being driven through the woods.
Madson said he then heard someone shout "Get out," and then heard a crash in the woods. Then, he said, he heard a four-wheeler drive away.
"I was taken by surprise," he said. "I thought it was just hunters talking, but I was shocked when I heard an angry tone. I was fearful someone in our party had gotten in trouble."
When cross-examined, Madson admitted he could not see what was happening in the woods.
Robert Raade, a forester from Washburn, Wis., who belonged to the same hunting group as Madson, also testified in court Tuesday. He said he, too, heard voices shouting in the woods that day.
Raade said he met McCormick sometime before the 2010 hunting opener.
He said McCormick stopped to talk to him while Raade was putting up his tree stand on state land and that McCormick had asked him if he was aware he was close to private property.
He said McCormick told him he thought someone had been "messing" with his tree stand and that his ratcheting tie was missing.
On the morning of Nov. 6, Raade said while he was sitting in his stand, he heard two voices in the woods - a louder voice and a softer voice.
He remembered hearing the words, "trespassing" and "land posted" being spoken.
He then said he saw a hunter walk through the woods.
Later he heard an all-terrain vehicle being driven through the McCormick property.
Then he said he heard bits and pieces of a conversation taking place between two hunters.
Then Raade said he heard a voice scream, "Get out," and then heard a loud crash.
"My concern was I was next," Raade said. "The guy screaming knew where my stand was and I didn't know what would happen next."
During his cross-examination, Raade admitted he never heard anyone cry out in pain after the crash.
Ben Meister of Breezy Point, Minn., a former employee of McCormick's who was hunting with McCormick on Nov. 6 was also called into as a witness Tuesday. He said he was hunting on McCormick's property, about 250 feet west of where Benedict was hunting that morning.
He said he believed he set up his hunting stand before he had any knowledge of Benedict's stand being where it was on Nov. 6.
On the morning of Nov. 6, Meister said he set his gun against the tree he was hunting from and walked to the tree stand Benedict was sitting in and told him he had an issue with Benedict driving through McCormick's property to get to his stand.
He said he told Benedict he would let McCormick know of his presence.
Meister found McCormick and told him what had occurred and said McCormick told him he would talk to Benedict.
While waiting for McCormick to come back from talking with Benedict, Meister said he heard an ATV drive off to the east and then saw McCormick.
When Meister was asked by Mollin if McCormick told him that he had grabbed the tarp on Benedict's stand, Meister answered, "Yes."
Meister said McCormick told him he tried to hand Benedict his business card and that the tree stand fell afterwards. He said McCormick told him that after the stand fell, Benedict got up and was concerned that a part on his gun was broken. Meister testified that McCormick said Benedict then got into his four-wheeler and drove away.
Meister recalled McCormick made a 911 call to the local Sheriff's Office.
Meister said that on Nov. 7, he went to the scene of Benedict's downed stand and recalled seeing "old beer cans," toilet paper and garbage beneath the stand.