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Trial starts for man accused in hunter's death in north-central Minnesota's Clearwater County

Bagley - The conduct of a north-central Minnesota man with a bad temper is what caused a tree stand to fall while a hunter was sitting in it, causing the hunter to sustain injuries that ultimately led to the hunter's death, a prosecutor said as Kevin McCormick's manslaughter trial began Monday.

McCormick, 53, of Breezy Point, Minn., faces a decade or more in prison if convicted of second-degree manslaughter for the death of Jerry Benedict, then a 62-year-old hunter who died in November 2010.

Clearwater County Attorney Richard Mollin, who is prosecuting the case, told jurors in his opening remarks that evidence would show McCormick gave law enforcement authorities and others four different versions of how the tree stand fell to the ground.

"Four different versions. Four different reasons," Mollin said.

Mollin also told jurors that one of the doctors who treated Benedict in a Fargo, N.D., hospital and the doctor who performed the autopsy could both confirm Benedict's cause of death was related to his fall, which occurred on Nov. 6, 2010. He died Nov. 24, 2010.

But Robert Christensen, McCormick's attorney, told jurors the truth was not so simple. He said evidence would reveal Benedict was not seriously hurt after he fell from the tree stand on the morning of Nov. 6. Rather, Benedict decided to hunt in a second deer stand later that afternoon, from which he fell, causing him to sustain serious injuries that resulted in him being hospitalized, Christensen said.

He told jurors they would hear from a medical examiner who, after reviewing Benedict's medical records, believes Benedict would not have been able to move around as he did after his alleged fall that morning had he really suffered from broken ribs, broken vertebrae and a dislocated shoulder.

Christensen also told the jury evidence would prove Benedict had been drinking that day and that medical records would reveal he had a .08 blood alcohol level, which Christensen said was likely higher earlier that day before he was hospitalized.

"Evidence will show there is reasonable doubt all over this case," Christensen said. "It will become clear McCormick didn't cause the injuries that led to his death."

McCormick originally was charged Nov. 8, 2010, with felony first-degree assault and misdemeanor hunter harassment. The assault charge was amended March 4, 2011, to second-degree manslaughter after Benedict died. The state last week dropped the hunter harassment charge.

According to the criminal complaint:

McCormick at 10:45 p.m. Nov. 6, 2010, called Clearwater County to report that a man was on his property and had put a deer stand in a tree. McCormick said the two men "had a scuffle" and fell from the deer stand, but that medical attention was not needed as the man had left the property.

A White Earth Tribal Police officer responded to the scene, located off Height-of-Land Road in Clearwater County, and did not find anyone.

It was later learned that Benedict had called 911 through the Mahnomen County Sheriff's Office for an ambulance at about 7:30 that evening for a possible back injury. He was taken to Mahnomen Health Center and then life-flighted to a Fargo hospital due to the severity of his injuries.

A Mahnomen deputy interviewed Benedict, who said he had been pulled from a deer stand while hunting off of Height-of-Lane Trail in Clearwater County. Benedict described a man with the name of Kevin who had approached him while he was in the deer stand and accused him of trespassing on his land. Benedict said the man, identified as McCormick, continued to argue with him and began pulling the canvas of the tree stand he was in.

The pulling of the tree stand caused the stand to fall from the tree and Benedict fell to the ground, Benedict said, according to the complaint. The stand was about 16 feet above the ground, with the base about 12 feet above the ground.

Benedict suffered severe injuries, including several broken vertebrae in his back, internal abdominal bleeding and blood in his lungs.

According to the complaint, McCormick, in a taped statement, said he told Benedict he was trespassing on his property and told him to leave. According to McCormick, Benedict said it was tribal land and he had permission to hunt there, but McCormick said he knew Benedict drove on his land to get to the tree stand.

McCormick said he extended his business card to Benedict but could not reach him because he was more than 7 feet in the air, the complaint states. McCormick said he stepped on the top rung and grabbed onto the canvas. The tree stand tipped and fell to the ground.

A check at the Clearwater County Assessor's Office showed that McCormick did not own any property in Clearwater County, the criminal complaint states.

During the pretrial held Thursday, Christensen said the reason the County Assessor's Office showed no record of McCormick owning property was because McCormick had purchased the property only a few weeks before the opening weekend of deer hunting and had not yet paid property taxes on it.

During Monday's trial, Shane Zarns, 35, of Becker, Minn., a witness called in by the state to testify, said he was in the woods the day McCormick on Nov. 5 confronted members of Benedict's hunting party and claimed that one of the group's tree stands was on his property.

"He was very aggressive and very upset," Zarns said.

On Nov, 6, Zarns said Benedict appeared "healthy and talkative" before the alleged fall.

He said the next time he saw Benedict was when the hunting party reconvened at a group campsite and Zarns saw Benedict sitting in a lawn chair near the camper.

"He was quiet. He didn't say a word, which is unusual," Zarns said. "He sat with his head down and didn't say much."

Zarns recalled seeing Benedict drinking a lemon-lime flavored soda. He told Mollin it was the hunting party's philosophy that it was not practical to drink while hunting.

Two days after Benedict was hospitalized, Zarns said he visited the second tree stand Benedict sat in Nov. 6. He said the tree stand was homemade and constructed of wood, stood about 6 or 7 feet off the ground and could be accessed by using a ladder.

He recalled seeing a hat lying on the ground beneath the stand, a lawn chair folded up on the ground, a heater sitting on the platform of the stand and a lemon-lime flavored soda can resting on the tree stand. Zarns said he did not know for sure what was in the soda can.

Don Zarns of Long Prairie, Minn., Shane Zarns' father and a friend of Benedict's, also appeared in court Monday to testify. He said he and Benedict had hunted more than 30 years together.

Don Zarns recalled seeing Benedict "bubbly and anxious to go hunting" on Nov. 6, which was the opener of deer-hunting season.

"His personality was very outgoing. He always had something to say," Don Zarns said.

While sitting in his tree stand at about 10:30 a.m. Nov. 6, Don Zarns said he saw Benedict drive his ATV down a trail, stop to pick up the cover of his ATV which he left in the woods, and then drive to his truck. Then he said he remembered seeing Benedict's truck drive off.

Later, when Don Zarns came to the group site for lunch, he said he saw Benedict sitting in his truck. Benedict eventually got out of his truck, Don Zarns said, and he saw Benedict sit down in a lawn chair.

"He was very quiet. He wasn't smiling. He just stared straight ahead, which I thought was very unusual," Don Zarns said.

Don Zarns said the day after Benedict was hospitalized, he visited the second tree stand where Benedict hunted Nov. 6. He said he saw a chair lying on the ground and a lemon-lime flavored soda can resting on the tree stand.

He told Mollin the hunting party's policy is to not drink alcohol while hunting, but that consuming alcohol after hunting was OK.

Don Zarns said he had not seen Benedict drinking on Nov. 6, but admitted he never looked inside Benedict's truck or knew what was inside the soda can on Benedict's second tree stand.

Don Zarns and Shane Zarns both said they were not with Benedict when Benedict walked to the second tree stand on Saturday, and they were not with Benedict when he was found Saturday evening at the Pinehurst Resort in Naytahwaush, Minn., where members of his hunting party called 911 after seeing him in pain.