AUGUSTA — A former corrections officer pleaded guilty Monday to reckless conduct with a firearm following the shooting of a fellow trainee inside a pickup truck at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro.

Matthew W. Benger, now 25, who has addresses in Brunswick and Saco, was placed on deferred disposition for a year, and will be permitted to withdraw that plea if he meets certain conditions.

As he pled, the victim, Matthew J. Morrison, 34, watched from a bench in the courtroom, and at the end of the hearing, Benger and Morrison shook hands and exchanged a brief hug in the courtroom before departing separately.

Morrison didn’t want Benger to go to jail, and the state agreed to respect that request.

“Today Mr. Morrison has asked me to not ask for time in custody,” District Attorney Maeghan Maloney told the judge. “He is in agreement with the deferred disposition and is hopeful that … the two of them can move on with their lives.”

Maloney also said Morrison hopes he can help Benger with obtaining a pardon in the future.

Morrison also asked that Benger and he be permitted to have contact, and Justice Michaela Murphy permitted it after asking Morrison directly, “Do you feel safe?”

He responded, “Absolutely.”

Maloney outlined the state’s evidence and said the June 12 shooting occurred in the fifth week of a six-week course for corrections officers.

Benger, Morrison, and a third trainee, Cody Gillis, then 25, of Brunswick, were in Gillis’ truck when the shooting occurred about 8 p.m. in the rear parking lot of the police academy complex, located off Oak Grove Road.

A 9 mm handgun owned by Gillis was stored in the console of his truck. Benger was a front seat passenger and was handling the gun when it fired, striking Morrison, who was in the rear seat.

Morrison was flown by LifeFlight helicopter to Maine Medical Center in Portland for treatment.

Maloney said Benger took the gun out and loaded it, but there was some dispute about that, she noted.

She said he apparently intended to clear the gun when it went off, striking Morrison in the left knee and shattering a bone.

Benger and Gillis worked as corrections officers in Cumberland County and Morrison in Aroostook County.

In court on Monday, Murphy told Morrison she read his victim impact statement.

“What you wrote is very articulate,” Murphy said. “I hope Mr. Benger appreciates how generous you’ve been with how you approached this.”

Maloney also said, “It really is Mr. Morrison and his ability to forgive. He’s really forgiven Mr. Benger, and that’s not something we see very often.”

Except for responding to the judge’s questions, Morrison said little. He walked with a slight limp.

Morrison wrote that the injury caused pain, emotional distress and financial hardship for his family, but that he believed Benger’s apology letter was sincere.

“I do believe that he is sorry for what has happened and I know that he would change anything about that night leading up to this tragedy.” Morrison wrote. “Believe me, I would too.”

Morrison said he hoped to continue his career with the sheriff’s office. “I’ll work twice as hard and continue to do so to get myself back to where I need to be until I’m told it’s physically impossible.”

In exchange for Benger’s plea, the state dismissed a second charge of aggravated assault from the same incident.

Conditions of Benger’s deferred disposition require him to pay restitution of $15,000 to Morrison through the district attorney’s office, do 50 hours of community service, and complete a two-day or longer gun safety course. Other than the course, Benger is prohibited from use or possession of dangerous weapons including firearms.

If Benger succeeds in doing that over the next 12 months, the agreement says he can withdraw his guilty plea to the Class C charge and instead plead guilty to a misdemeanor reckless conduct charge.

Murphy asked if Benger could pay the amount of restitution in that time, and defense attorney Roger Brunelle Jr. said there was no question.

“We’ve discussed that in depth,” Brunelle told her. He also said Benger is working and has assistance from family.

If Benger fails to meet the conditions, he would then be sentenced on the felony charge.

The next hearing in the case is set for 10 a.m. Dec. 6, 2018.

Maloney noted that the original resolution agreement reached between attorneys called for her to ask for Benger to spend nine months in jail and Brunelle to argue against any jail time.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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