Opening statements presented, 14 witnesses testify in first day of Comerzan trial

Serghei Comerzan looks on at evidence presented against him in the back of the St. Charles County court house February 26, 2018.

Jurors heard opening statements and the state began presenting evidence Monday in Serghei Comerzan's second trial.

Comerzan was charged in the summer 2015 death of trooper James Bava with resisting a lawful stop and involuntary manslaughter. The latter charge was the result of a downgraded second-degree murder charge.

Investigators said Comerzan was speeding at more than 100 mph in Audrain County on his motorcycle at the time of the incident. While apparently pursuing Comerzan, prosecutors said Bava died after his vehicle crashed.

The state has maintained its argument Comerzan knew or reasonably had to know Trooper James Bava was trying to pull him over. Comerzan's defense countered, the investigation began on misconception, and there was no evidence to prove state's claim.

Jurors first heard from Sergeant Matt Koch, who testified he investigated the crash for the Highway Patrol's Division of Drug and Crime Control. He said he initially responded to investigate a crime scene. He testified Bava's lights and sirens were in an on position before he crashed.

During Koch's testimony, jurors saw Trooper Bava's burnt, crumpled car and parts versus a Missouri State Highway Patrol vehicle of the same model in a sally port of the court house.

Bava's parents did not leave the court house to see the physical car evidence during the last trial in May 2017; they appeared to make the same decision in this trial as well. The hung jury in May could not decide whether to convict him of second-degree murder and resisting a lawful stop.

Koch told jurors he checked mapping data to see what speed and where Bava had driven before the crash.

After lunch, jurors heard from Corporal Bruce McLaughlin, who was Bava's field training officer in Audrain County. The state showed Bava's certificate of his completion of training with the patrol's speed radar technology. Prosecutors also showed evidence to prove Bava's radar was accurate and functioning properly the morning of the crash. McLaughlin said Bava was the only trooper on duty in the Audrain County zone the morning of his death.

Prosecutor Scott Fox played a video of McLaughlin's high-speed response to Bava's crash. Sitting in the front and center rows of the court room, Bava's family members were visibly emotional watching the recording.

On cross examination, Comerzan's attorney, Charles James, asked McLaughlin if Bava had called in a pursuit. In the recording of Bava's call into Troop F that morning, he was heard saying "he took off on me" and "I'll be finding him." James suggested he never started a formal chase. McLaughlin said an official pursuit is launched typically when the officer says the word pursuit.

Jurors also heard from Sergeant Doug McPike, a highway patrol supervisor for the Audrain County area. He testified State Road FF is curvy, hill, and dangerous, especially for those who were not familiar with the roads. On cross examination, he said Bava had been assigned to the zone a year and a half prior to his death.

More than a half-dozen civilian witnesses spent Monday night testifying about the morning of the crash. Neighbors on FF, drivers nearby and some working in the area told jurors about the moments leading up to, during, and after Bava crashed. Daryl Jennings was working on a home with another witness on FF. He told jurors about 30-40 seconds had elapsed between the sound of Comerzan's motorcycle and the sounds of Bava's siren.

Prosecutors played the call Jennings made to 9-1-1 reporting Bava's crash, in which he tells the dispatcher Bava was in pursuit of a motorcyclist. Prosecutors also played the 9-1-1 recording from Quinton Jones, who lives nearby. While telling the dispatcher about the fiery crash scene, Jones also mentioned the motorcyclist to the dispatcher.

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