Trial of Minnesota construction company owner accused of excavator assault delayed for health issueConstruction company owner Michael Billman’s assault trial Wednesday was as unusual as the crime he is accused of committing — intentionally striking one of his employees with an excavator bucket he was operating at a Hermantown construction site.
Construction company owner Michael Billman’s assault trial Wednesday was as unusual as the crime he is accused of committing — intentionally striking one of his employees with an excavator bucket he was operating at a Hermantown construction site.
A jury was picked in the morning in State District Court in Duluth and attorneys made their opening statements after lunch in an attempt to resolve an incident that occurred almost 2½ years ago. Defense attorney David Keegan then asked Judge Heather Sweetland if he and St. Louis County prosecutor Nathaniel Stumme could approach the bench.
After that conference, Sweetland excused jurors from the courtroom. Keegan told the court that he believed his client was in significant distress. The defense attorney said that when he returned to the counsel table after making his opening statement, Billman heavily leaned into him and almost fell off his chair.
Sweetland gave Keegan and his client five minutes to leave the courtroom, get some fresh air and discuss the matter. When they returned, Keegan told the court that Billman was hard to understand and what he was able to understand didn’t make much sense.
Billman, 51, of Saginaw and co-owner of Billman’s Construction in Hermantown, addressed the court before and after the five-minute recess and was difficult to understand, but said he had twice suffered congestive heart failure, was on medication and thinks he has been adversely affected by a mold infestation at his home.
Sweetland told the parties that based on the information presented to the court Billman was “not in a position to be able to proceed’’ in what was expected to be a two-day trial. The judge declared a mistrial and said the trial will be rescheduled as soon as possible.
According to court records, this was the fifth time Billman has been scheduled for trial since being charged with the crime on Nov. 4, 2009. The previous four scheduled trials – before four different judges — were postponed.
Part of the reason for the lengthy delay in resolving the matter is that Keegan requested an order from the court for his client to undergo a mental health evaluation, which was granted in August 2011. That evaluation found the defendant competent to proceed to trial.
Sweetland on Wednesday ordered Keegan to provide her and Stumme notification from Billman’s treating physician that he’s physically able and not impaired by medication to stand trial five days before the rescheduled trial starts.
An hour after the mistrial, Keegan was reached in his office. He said Billman had left him a phone message that he was checking into the Mayo Clinic today.
“We are deeply disappointed in the unusual turn of events occurring in the middle of the Billman trial,’’ Stumme said. “However, the state will rely on Mr. Keegan’s representation to the court that Mr. Billman’s medical situation stood in the way of fair trial. Naturally, the victim and his family are frustrated that an imminent resolution is now delayed.’’
According to the criminal complaint charging Billman:
He was operating a John Deere excavator digging out the footings for an apartment complex near Green Acres and Kari Lane in Hermantown. Matthew Anderson was working for Billman.
Billman told police he told Anderson he was ruining the trench and to get out of it. He said he became angry because Anderson threw down an expensive piece of equipment and began mouthing off to him. Billman said he swung the excavator bucket to the left to nudge Anderson. He said it was a “stupid thing to do” and that he didn’t intend to hurt his employee.
Anderson said the excavator bucket knocked him on his back. The bucket continued pinning him on the ground and he felt himself sinking in the dirt. He said Billman then swung the bucket away and yelled “You don’t (expletive deleted) with me.”
Anderson rolled over and saw that his pants were torn up and he had blood on his stomach. He said Billman then began apologizing to him saying: “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just wanted to nudge you.”
According to Anderson, Billman also said, “(Expletive deleted) this is an assault. I didn’t mean to do that.”
Anderson was transported to the hospital. He was bruised but suffered no broken bones, according to the complaint.