Prosecution plans to prove Webster used excessive force, defense will show officer's actions were justified.
The trial of Dover Police officer Cpl. Thomas W. Webster IV got underway Tuesday morning in Kent County Superior Court following the selection of a jury on Nov. 30.
Webster, 41, is charged with a single count of second-degree assault for allegedly kicking Lateef Dickerson, 31, in the head during an incident on Aug. 24, 2013.
Dickerson suffered a broken jaw from the encounter.
In its opening statement, the prosecution, led by Deputy Attorney General Mark A. Denney, laid out the parameters of the assault charge, saying that Webster had been reckless in his actions against Dickerson and that those actions caused Dickerson serious injury.
The attorneys had evidence that would prove both points, Denney said.
The defense, led by Dover attorney James E. Liguori, said it would show that some of the prosecution’s expert witnesses, particularly testimony on how force should be used in subduing a suspect, were unreliable.
They also would show that Webster’s actions were justified particularly because police had been told Dickerson was armed, he said.
As a result, “[Webster’s] actions made the situation safe, everyone was fine,” Liguori told the jurors.
Suspect thought to be armed
Deputy Attorney General Danielle Brennan began the prosecution’s case by calling Dover Police Department Lt. Todd Case, who was a sergeant in charge of Webster’s patrol unit in August 2013.
Accompanied by digital audio and video recordings, Case detailed the events leading up to Webster’s encounter with Dickerson.
A 911 call describing the scene that night said several black men were assaulting another man at the former Hess gas station on U.S. Route 13. The caller said one of the men, described as wearing a yellow hat and yellow shirt, was carrying a gun.
Voices on the audio later said the man had stripped off the yellow shirt revealing a white tank top, and was headed across Route 13 to the area near the Wells Fargo bank.
The video, taken from a camera mounted on another officer’s car, showed Webster and the other patrolman approach a man in a yellow hat and white shirt. Webster pushed against the man’s leg, forcing him to the ground as to other officer provided cover with his weapon. Webster then is seen kicking the man in the head.
When Case, who had been patrolling in North Dover arrived on the scene, he found Dickerson handcuffed, sitting on a curb.
“He seemed fine,” Case said, adding the only injury he noted as some blood on Dickerson’s chin.
Dickerson let loose with a string of defiant obscenities directed at the officers, adding, “You’re lucky you caught me,” Case said.
At the police station several hours later, and after Dickerson had been treated at Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital, Case said he instructed Webster to prepare what is known as a “use of force” report, and to ensure it was “complete, detailed and concise.”
The prosecution had earlier stated Webster was aware he had done something contrary to police procedure. This “consciousness of guilt,” as Denney called it, was manifested in part by errors in Webster’s use of force report, which included inaccurately reporting the number of the patrol car he was using that night.
One factor hanging over the case is the mystery of Dickerson’s current whereabouts.
According to the state Department of Justice, he is free on bond following an arrest in August 2014 on charges of conspiracy, receiving a stolen firearm and weapons possession.
That trial is scheduled for January, but it is not known if he will be available for the Webster trial.
Plea deal declined
On Monday, Webster affirmed to Judge Ferris Wharton that he had declined a prosecution offer of a plea agreement in the case.
Webster faced Judge Ferris Wharton as the judge asked he was aware of the possible punishments were he to be found guilty of the assault charge.
A guilty verdict could mean up to eight years in prison and loss of a number of civil rights, including the right to vote and to own a weapon. Under current sentencing guidelines, however, anyone convicted of second-degree assault could be sentenced to up to two years, Wharton told Webster.
If he accepted the agreement to plead guilty to misdemeanor third-degree assault, he could face a year in prison and a $2,300 fine, although sentencing guidelines instead suggest a sentence of probation.
“Do you understand all these things?” Wharton asked. “Is that your decision?”
“Yes, your honor, it is my decision,” Webster answered.
Testimony in the case was expected to resume Tuesday afternoon and to last the rest of the week, with the jury beginning deliberations as early as Monday.