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Trial begins for Cooperstown man accused of shooting officer in standoff

The trial of a Cooperstown, N.D., man accused of shooting an officer during a 2008 standoff began in Finley Tuesday.

Darin Dahl, 35, was holed up in a Luverne, N.D., home for more than 20 hours in April 2008. Authorities said he fired on officers and that a bullet struck the helmet of a Red River Valley SWAT team member.

Dahl is facing charges of attempted murder and reckless endangerment.

"This is real guns and real ammunition," Steele County prosecutor Charlie Stock told the jury in his opening statement. "This wasn't for fun. This is the real thing."

Using an aerial photo of the scene, Stock explained to jurors how the standoff unfolded. He said officers created a perimeter around the Luverne residence, which was a friend's home where Dahl was staying. Negotiators called Dahl on the phone several times and tried to coax him out of the house, to no avail, Stock said.

Anticipating the defense might argue that Dahl did not know he was dealing with law enforcement, the prosecutor said the defendant tried to bargain with officers over a prison sentence during the standoff.

Stock told jurors that officers eventually fired tear gas through the windows of the house to pressure Dahl to surrender. After the gas was deployed, the prosecutor said, Dahl was seen leaning out of a window unarmed, coughing -- that's when officers decided to move in.

During the officers' approach, Dahl fired a 12-gauge shotgun and struck the SWAT team member at "point-blank range" in the helmet, "which otherwise would have been his forehead," Stock said.

Dahl's attorney, Blake Hankey, told Judge Steven Marquart of state District Court that he would reserve his opening statement until later.

Fit for trial

Marquart ruled Friday that Dahl is competent to stand trial despite testimony from a clinical psychologist who said she believed otherwise.

During a December sentencing, Dahl had a verbal outburst, kicked a chair over and threw a pen at a judge. Marquart told Dahl that such antics will not be tolerated or cause a mistrial.

As recently as last week, Dahl threw a fit at the Jamestown State Hospital, Dr. Stacey Benson testified Friday.

Dahl stripped naked in his cell and pushed "everything that wasn't nailed to the wall," including his mattress, out through the food opening, Benson said. He then urinated on the floor, crawled onto a bookshelf and jumped off and hid in a corner, she said.

Benson testified that Dahl does not believe he faces as many as 20 years if convicted and will not consider a plea deal, saying it is all a conspiracy.

"He presumes what occurred as more of a grand conspiracy plot against him," Benson said, adding Dahl thinks the mafia and CIA are involved, and Iraqi police had surrounded him in the standoff.

Under questioning by Stock, Benson agreed that Dahl has an understanding of the legal system and not every defendant wants a plea deal.

Tuesday, Dahl wore street clothes in court, and his hands and feet were shackled when a deputy escorted him to the bathroom. During the trial, three deputies manned the courtroom -- one by the exit and two posted behind Dahl.

Past encounters

Griggs County Sheriff Robert Hook testified that he had dealt with Dahl several times before the standoff, and that a day or two before the incident, Dahl called him accusing the sheriff's office of stealing his medication.

Hook said all his dealings with Dahl involved "some type of anger or mistrust at my office or law enforcement."

In questioning Steele County Sheriff Wayne Beckman, Hankey referred to an officer's report that stated that Beckman had said Dahl was a paranoid schizophrenic, bipolar and off his medication at the time of the standoff. Beckman did not recall making the statement, but did not challenge validity of the report.

While being questioned by Stock, Beckman told the jury about an exchange he had with Dahl as he placed him under arrest.

"I said, 'Darin, it's not a good day' ... and he said that he was sorry," Beckman said.

Beckman said that based on his law enforcement experience, he got the impression Dahl knew what had transpired. But on cross-examination, Beckman acknowledged he couldn't say for sure what Dahl was thinking.

Jury selection

Hankey said about 75 percent of the 96-person jury pool knew too much about the case or could not be fair and impartial. "I was surprised with the sheer number of people who presumed that he's guilty," the Grand Forks attorney said outside of court.

By Tuesday afternoon, a 13-person panel -- eight women and five men -- were selected to hear the case that is scheduled to last until Friday. Stock said he expects to finish calling witnesses for the prosecution as early as this afternoon.

To avoid tainting their view of the case, jurors were not given specifics about the incident that led authorities to Dahl. They were told there was an incident, but not that he was accused of shooting at a home in rural Griggs County the day before the standoff began. As a result of that episode, Dahl was convicted of reckless endangerment in October. Dahl served as his own attorney in that trial.

Arnie Rummel, an agent with the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, was the third witness to take the stand Tuesday. He began to tell jurors of his inquiry into the incident but was cut short due to time.

The trial is expected to resume at 9 a.m. today.