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A property dispute that shouldn't have been results in Clearwater County death

On Nov. 5, 2010, Jerry Donald Benedict set up a deer stand at a spot in the woods in southern Clearwater County, Minn., where he had hunted for the past 25 years.

The following day, Kevin Thomas McCormick, a landowner in the area who also had set up a deer stand, came by and accused Benedict of trespassing.

In the confrontation that followed, Benedict would fall from his deer stand. He would eventually be taken to hospital with severe injuries, which killed him 18 days later. Benedict was 64.

On Friday, a jury convicted McCormick, 53, of Breezy Point, Minn., of second-degree manslaughter at state district court in Bagley, Minn. He likely faces a two-year prison sentence, according to Clearwater County Attorney Richard Mollin, who views this as a cautionary tale for hunters.

"It seems that the recklessness of Mr. McCormick, whether he was thinking or his temper was so explosive, he was without any reason when confronting this man," Mollin said. "It alerts the rest of the hunting population. It's not worth it to lose your temper in such a dramatic way. It's a good example to hunters to remember the story."

A survey commissioned for the trial showed that show that, in fact, Benedict's deer stand was 275 feet into property belonging to the White Earth Nation, Mollin said. Benedict had earlier asked the tribe for permission.

The survey also showed that McCormick's deer stand wasn't on his property as he thought; it was also on tribal land.

McCormick's attorney, Robert M. Christensen, said the jury just didn't like his client. He argued unsuccessfully that Benedict's injury was caused by a fall from another deer stand later that day.

Sentencing for McCormick is scheduled for April 11, and Christensen is planning a number of post-trial motions and potentially an appeal to a three-judge panel.

Murky disputes

Hunting disputes that involve land borders aren't usually based on accurate information, according to Stuart Bensen, State Conservation Officer in Polk County.

"We run across that many times every year," Bensen said. "A landowner wants them arrested. They're close to a property line. A lot of times they're not clear. Property owners will say 'This is where the fence line is.' But that's not a legal indicator."

Fences are often put up in the easiest spot near the property line, he said.

GPS readings aren't legal indicators either, according to Bensen. Surveys are the only way to determine land borders and must be ordered and paid for by land owners.

In one recent case, Bensen said a landowner did a survey only to find the results were not what he expected.

"The landowner filed a complaint," he said. "He gained on one part and lost on another. It was way off, by maybe 80 yards. He was quite angry at me because I wouldn't arrest the alleged trespasser, who in fact, wasn't trespassing."

No eyewitnesses

There were no witnesses to the dispute between McCormick and Benedict.

Robert Raade, who was hunting on tribal land about 200 feet from Benedict, reported hearing a loud voice accusing someone of trespassing around 9:20 a.m. Nov. 6, 2010. Later, he said heard someone yelling to get out and he didn't care if it was Indian land.

That was followed by a loud crash.

Christensen said Raade didn't report any yelling or reaction after the fall, which meant Benedict wasn't badly injured.

Mollin said McCormick has given different accounts of what happened that morning.

"He called 911 and indicated that he had grabbed onto the canvas that was wrapped around the stand," Mollin said. "If you were to see the deer stand, you could see that was how he had leverage to tip it over."

McCormick would later tell authorities that he had got on the stand and reached up to offer Benedict his business card when it tumbled down, Mollin said.

Still later, McCormick attempted a video reenactment in which he claimed he didn't get on the stand at all, Mollin said.

One fall or two?

Benedict suffered severe injuries from a fall, including broken vertebrae, internal abdominal bleeding, a dislocated shoulder, fractured ribs and blood in his lungs.

Mollin said the top of the tree stand was 16 feet and estimated that the fall could have been as much as 18 feet when the arc of the fall is taken into account.

Both McCormick and Benedict had ATVs and left the scene independently, McCormick returning to his hunting shack while Benedict went to his hunting party's camp.

Christensen said Benedict's actions over the next few hours prove he wasn't badly hurt when he left his stand. For example, he said, Benedict fired his gun to make sure the scope was still accurate.

"He conducted himself without showing any pain or telling anybody," Christensen said. "It just doesn't add up. The reason we know that he was not showing any pain, he fires a deer rifle with a dislocated shoulder."

Christensen argued an intoxicated Benedict fell out of another tree stand later that day. Benedict's blood alcohol level was .08 when tested at the Mahnomen Medical Center, shortly after his arrival at 7 p.m., Christensen said.

After an examination, Benedict was airlifted to Sanford Medical Center in Fargo, where he underwent surgery. He eventually died of his injuries Nov. 24.

Christensen said personal items of Benedict's were found below a second stand, 125 yards away.

"In order for the jury to convict my client, they had to prove that my client's actions caused the injury that led to his death," Christensen said.

He said his client was in large part convicted because jurors, who deliberated for almost five hours, didn't like his client.

"I know they didn't like my guy and I don't blame them for that, but that's not the standard," Christensen said. "I think my guy was lucky he didn't hurt him, but he didn't hurt him. They still have to prove that the fall caused the injury."