Driver in U crash guilty of 2nd-degree murder

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2012 - 10:38 PM

After a weeklong trial, the jury took eight hours to convict Timothy Bakdash in the hit-and-run that killed Ben Van Handel.

Ann and Steve Van Handel knew no jury verdict could bring back their son Ben, a bright and chivalrous 23-year-old from Wisconsin who died after being run down on a Dinkytown sidewalk almost a year ago.

But they still took a bit of satisfaction when a jury found the man responsible for his death guilty of second-degree murder and eight other felonies in Hennepin County District Court on Tuesday.

"He would be embarrassed at all of this," his father said, gesturing to the crowd of reporters and television cameras surrounding his family moments after Timothy Bakdash was convicted. "But I think he would be satisfied."

After a weeklong trial and about eight hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Bakdash, 29, of murder for the April 15 hit-and-run in which he struck a group of U students with his car after a night of drinking at the Library Bar in Dinkytown. Among them was Van Handel, a senior from Appleton, Wis., who died from brain injuries six days later, just hours before Bakdash was arrested. Students Sarah Bagley and Katelynn Hanson, who were walking in a different group, also were seriously hurt.

The jury cleared Bakdash of first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder, but he was convicted of second-degree attempted murder for striking the women.

He was also convicted of felony murder, assault, criminal vehicular homicide and criminal vehicular operation. He could face about 25 years in prison, according to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

Prosecutors contended Bakdash knew what he was doing when he drove the wrong way down 5th Street SE. at 2 a.m. and onto the sidewalk, avoiding trees and a retaining wall before hitting the students. Bakdash, who testified in his own defense, admitted to being the driver, but told jurors that he was drunk and high. He said he was trying to scare a man he believed had taunted him in the parking lot when he drove up onto the curb, intending to clip the man's ankle.

Instead, he testified, he saw a woman bounce off his windshield and panicked.

He claims he never knew he hit Van Handel or another woman. Van Handel's parents, who say they weren't remotely convinced by Bakdash's testimony or claims of remorse, also said they weren't disappointed in the lack of a first-degree murder conviction, which would have resulted in a life sentence. They were prepared for the difficulty involved in achieving that conviction, Steve Van Handel said.

A sentencing date has not been scheduled.

'Difficult case' for jury

Bakdash, the son of a periodontist and a nurse practitioner who was living with his mother in Roseville at the time of the crash, shook his head when the verdict was read.

His gaze didn't leave the floor as deputies led him from the courtroom.

Bakdash's attorney, Joseph Tamburino, said he respected the jury's verdict, and was pleased his client was cleared of first-degree murder.

"It's always a difficult case when you have somebody who admits driving down the sidewalk and hitting three people. It was just a matter of what degree of intent," Tamburino said. "It was a difficult case for a jury to decide. On one hand, there was all the evidence that pointed toward a premeditated act, but you're asking for 12 people to look into the minutiae of a person's actions and they found he didn't premeditate the act."

Tamburino asserted a voluntary intoxication defense, which might have spared Bakdash from the first-degree murder conviction.

Under Minnesota law, being under the influence of drugs or alcohol does not make an act less criminal, but it can be used to determine whether a defendant had the presence of mind to have the intent and premeditation to kill.

Testimony of friends

However, Senior Assistant Hennepin County Attorney William Richardson said afterward that Bakdash's conduct, including the high level of control over the car as it weaved to avoid obstacles, even after striking Van Handel, indicated Bakdash's intent.

Bakdash's close friends testified as reluctant, yet critical prosecution witnesses in the case against Bakdash.

They included his friend Matt Damman, who was a passenger in Bakdash's Mitsubishi Galant the night he ran over the students, but did not come forward to police for six months. Another friend, Brandon Bordeau, bought the damaged car from Bakdash two days after the crash and began fixing it, but testified he initially had no idea it had been involved in a fatal crash.

"These folks were friends of the defendant and they behaved accordingly," Richardson said. "That's what makes them such powerful witnesses."

Before she and her husband left the courthouse, Ann Van Handel embraced Leslie Falk, the 22-year-old U student who Van Handel was walking home the night he was struck. Falk also testified for the prosecution.

Ann Van Handel, her eyes shining with affection and grief, held Falk tightly. "If I can't have Ben back," she said, "I've gained about eight or 10 kids like him."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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