DOVER, Del. – A white police officer in Delaware seen on video kicking a black suspect in the head and breaking his jaw has been acquitted of assault.
A Kent County Superior Court jury deliberated for about 16 hours over three days before acquitting Dover police Cpl. Thomas Webster IV of felony assault Tuesday. The jury also declined to convict Webster on a lesser charge of misdemeanor assault.
Webster quickly left the courthouse through a side entrance, avoiding reporters.
Webster, 42, testified that he didn't intend to kick Lateef Dickerson in the head in the August 2013 encounter and was instead aiming for his upper body. Webster also said he feared for the safety of himself and others because officers responding to reports of a large fight were told Dickerson was armed with a gun. He also testified that Dickerson was slow to comply with repeated commands to get on the ground.
Dashboard camera video from another officer's vehicle shows that Dickerson had placed his hands on the ground but wasn't fully prone when Webster kicked him.
Prosecutors argued that Dickerson was not a threat when Webster kicked him, and that the officer acted recklessly and used excessive force.
Webster rejected a pretrial offer from prosecutors to plead guilty to third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, in return for surrendering his certification and never working as a police officer again.
Dickerson, who has a lengthy criminal history and is awaiting trial on unrelated charges involving stolen guns, was charged with resisting arrest after fleeing from the officer at the fight scene. That charge was later dropped.
Fred Calhoun, president of the Delaware chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the verdict shows the community has faith in its law enforcement officers.
"I think that it's going to go a long way with my brothers and sisters that society has shown, at least in Dover, that they have had enough of being bullied and they have faith in the police and the job we do," Calhoun said.
La Mar Gunn, president of the Central Delaware branch of the NAACP, called the verdict a setback for the black community: "I would just challenge the people to continue to have hope. ... There are people who need justice to work, and this sends the wrong message."
Meanwhile, prosecutors defended Democratic Attorney General Matt Denn's decision to take the case to a second grand jury after he succeeded Beau Biden as attorney general.
"We feel vindicated by the fact that the jury took three days to deliberate," said prosecutor Mark Denney Jr. "In light of everything, the new attorney general was entitled to have his shot at it ... The second grand jury was a reasonable step."
Denn declined to comment on the verdict.
Defense attorney James Liguori has said Webster's indictment resulted from "state machinations" and an "abuse of power."
Prosecutors first took the case to a grand jury last year but failed to get an indictment. The U.S. Attorney's Office also concluded after a review that there was no civil rights violation. Liguori 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.
Dover Police Chief Paul Bernat said in a statement that the department will evaluate the case and make a determination regarding Webster's job status.
Webster has been suspended without pay since being indicted in May. In November 2013, he was placed on paid leave pending an internal investigation, which concluded that his actions were outside departmental policy. The police department has said it took "appropriate actions," and Webster returned to duty in June 2014.
Meanwhile, Richard Morse, an attorney for Delaware chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union confirmed Tuesday that a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on Dickerson's behalf has been resolved, but he declined to provide details.