Jury mulls verdict in Delaware officer assault case

AP News
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Posted: Dec 04, 2015 5:15 PM

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Jurors deliberated for several hours Friday but were unable to reach a quick verdict in the trial of a white Delaware police officer charged with assault after breaking a black suspect's jaw with a kick.

Jurors in the trial of Dover police officer Thomas Webster IV, which began Monday, were dismissed after deliberating for more than four hours. They will resume deliberations Monday.

Webster testified that he didn't intend to kick Lateef Dickerson in the head but was aiming for Dickerson's upper body. He also said he feared for the safety of himself and others because officers were told Dickerson was armed with a gun, and Dickerson was slow to comply with repeated police commands to get on the ground.

Defense attorney James Liguori told jurors in closing arguments Friday that Webster had only seconds to act after Dickerson — who had run from another officer responding to a fight — repeatedly ignored the commands of Webster and another officer, Christopher Hermance, to get on the ground.

"These split-second decisions and judgments ... not only were they justifiable, they were in fact necessary," Liguori said.

Prosecutors contend that Webster intended to kick Dickerson in the head, and that he acted recklessly and used excessive force.

"Whether it was a mistake, whether it was intentional, it was reckless behavior," prosecutor Danielle Brennan told jurors.

Brennan also said reports filed by Webster after the encounter were "inconsistent and incorrect" and didn't include his contention that he was not aiming at Dickerson's head.

Dashcam video from Hermance's vehicle shows that Dickerson had placed his hands on the ground but wasn't fully prone when Webster kicked him.

"He was getting down to the felony prone position," said Brennan, referring to the term used by police when a potentially dangerous suspect is flat on the ground with his arms extended.

The defense has argued that Dickerson was in a "sprinter's position" from which he could have lunged at the officers, fled with a gun or pulled a weapon.

Dickerson, who has a long criminal history and is currently awaiting trial on unrelated charges involving stolen firearms, was charged with resisting arrest after fleeing from the officer at the fight scene, but the charge was later dropped.

Defense witnesses, including a police academy defensive tactics instructor and former FBI agent who is an expert in the use of force, testified that Webster acted reasonably. A prosecution expert disagreed, saying Dickerson did not present an "objectively reasonable threat" at the time.

Liguori has maintained that Webster's indictment was the result of "state machinations" and an "abuse of power." An initial grand jury declined to indict the officer after the encounter, but a second one indicted Webster earlier this year.

Liguori has argued that Democratic Attorney General Matt Denn's decision to take the case to a second grand jury with no new evidence was a politically motivated response to nationwide scrutiny of police encounters with black citizens.

Webster rejected prosecutors' offer to plead guilty to third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, in return for surrendering his certification and never working as a police officer again. If convicted of felony second-degree assault, he faces up to eight years in prison.

Jurors have the option of convicting Webster on the felony charge or the lesser misdemeanor charge. The misdemeanor conviction typically results in probation but carries up to one year in prison and could end Webster's law enforcement career.