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Player testifies that Michigan soccer referee who later died 'did not see the punch coming'

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LIVONIA, Mich. - A soccer referee who was fatally punched by a player during a recreational game in suburban Detroit did not expect the attack, one of the player's teammates testified Wednesday.

Dr. Jamal Saleh testified during a probable-cause hearing for Bassel Saad, who is charged with second-degree murder in the death of referee John Bieniewicz.

The 44-year-old referee "did not see the punch coming," said Saleh, who played for Saad's team during the over-30 men's league game at Mies Park in Livonia on June 29.

Two players from the opposing team also testified that Saad knocked Bieniewicz to the turf with one punch after the referee indicated he planned to eject Saad from the game.

The punch, which Saleh said landed around the head and neck area, caused Bieniewicz to "fall back without any control of his body."

Saleh said he rushed toward Bieniewicz, who was on his back grasping a yellow card in one hand and a red card in the other.

In soccer, a yellow card is held aloft by the referee to caution a player following a foul or other misconduct. A red card is shown by the referee when a player is being thrown out of the game. Two yellow cards given in the same game equal a red card.

In this case, the players testified that Saad had been issued a yellow card following a foul in the first half, and Bieniewicz was giving him a second yellow for being verbally abusive. That's when he was struck, the three players said.

A skirmish erupted between players following the attack. Saleh said he quickly checked on Bieniewicz and the referee initially was not breathing but had a pulse.

Saleh said he performed CPR and told the unconscious Bieniewicz: "Wake up, buddy. You're going to be OK."

Player Scott Herkes testified that Saad removed his jersey and left the field with another man as Bieniewicz was being tended to.

Herkes said he followed the men into the parking lot and took down the license plate number of the vehicle in which they left.

Prosecutors showed a photograph in which Saad appeared to be making an obscene gesture while seated in the vehicle.

Saad, a 36-year-old auto mechanic from Dearborn, had been charged with assault with intent to do great bodily harm before Bieniewicz died July 1. That charge was formally dropped, and prosecutors issued the murder charge.

The probable-cause hearing in Livonia District Court, which will determine whether to send the case to trial, is scheduled to resume Thursday.

It ended with Judge Kathleen McCann denying prosecutors' motion to bring up an alleged 2005 incident in which Saad is said to have been involved in an altercation with another player at a soccer game.

Defence lawyer Ali Hammoud said his client's past has nothing to do with this case, and prosecutors' interest in bringing it up shows that "their case is extremely weak on second-degree murder."

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