DOVER, Del. (AP) – A White Delaware police officer charged with kicking a Black suspect in the head during an arrest two years ago rejected a plea deal on a lesser charge, lawyers said Monday as a jury was seated in his felony assault trial.
The predominantly female jury for the trial of Cpl. Thomas Webster IV was seated after a lengthy winnowing process. None of the jurors is a Black male.
Dashcam video taken from another officer’s car shows Webster kicking Lateef Dickerson in August 2013 while Dickerson was on his hands and knees. Dickerson was knocked unconscious and suffered a broken jaw. Charges against him of resisting arrest were later dropped.
Following jury selection, the judge heard arguments and ruled on several pretrial motions, rejecting a defense motion to dismiss the indictment against Webster.
But Judge Ferris Wharton also ruled that prosecutors could not tell jurors that at the time of his encounter with Lateef, Webster was already on probation for driving two intoxicated men to a remote area several miles from Dover and stranding them there instead of taking them to a hospital as one had requested.
According to a 2012 performance evaluation cited in court records, police officials said Webster demonstrated “very poor judgment” and was suspended for 80 hours and given nine months of disciplinary probation. State police later found the two men, one needing immediate medical attention, after receiving a call from a concerned citizen.
Defense attorney Jim Liguori suggested in court Monday that stranding suspects in the remote area of Port Mahon was routine for Dover police, and that it had been done by several other officers, including a former chief.
In prohibiting prosecutors from mentioning the Port Mahon incident, the judge also ruled that they must advise him ahead of time if they plan to mention three other incidents involving questionable use of force by Webster.
According to court papers unsealed earlier this month, prosecutors have reviewed 29 prior use-of-force reports for Webster. They want to point to three specific incidents to show what prosecutor Mark Denney Jr. said Monday was Webster’s “proclivity” to use physical force on suspects’ heads.
Attorneys revealed Monday that Webster rejected an offer to plead guilty to misdemeanor assault in exchange for surrendering his certification and promising to never work as a police officer again.
“It was my decision to reject the plea,” Webster said during questioning by Wharton. If convicted of felony assault, Webster faces a maximum eight years in prison, although guidelines call for zero to two years behind bars. He also would be prohibited from owning guns or working as a police officer.
The misdemeanor plea conviction he rejected typically results in probation but carries a maximum one-year prison term and a five-year prohibition on possessing firearms. The plea also would have prevented him from working as a police officer.
Liguori has maintained that Webster’s actions were justified. He argued unsuccessfully Monday outside the presence of jurors that the case should be dismissed because of the unreasonable delay between the 2013 incident and a grand jury indictment in May of this year. He blamed the delay on “state machinations” and an “abuse of power.”
Following Webster’s encounter with Dickerson, then-Attorney General Beau Biden’s office took the case to a grand jury but failed to get an indictment. The current attorney general, Matt Denn, reviewed the case after taking office in January and ordered that it be taken to a second grand jury.
Liguori has argued in court papers that 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.
Meanwhile, Liguori also argued Monday that Dickerson, who has a long criminal record and is currently facing unrelated criminal charges, has “gone underground” and is in hiding. He also noted that Webster’s dashcam video and audio, which could help in his defense, was destroyed after a police internal affairs investigator determined that it had no evidentiary value.
Liguori also tried to downplay the seriousness of Dickerson’s injuries, noting he was treated at a hospital and released and did not file a complaint until more than a month later.