DOVER, Del. (AP) — A white police officer who kicked a black suspect in the head and broke his jaw was acquitted of assault Tuesday by a Delaware jury.
Jurors deliberated for about 16 hours over three days before acquitting Dover police Cpl. Thomas Webster IV of felony assault. The jury also declined to convict Webster on the lesser charge of misdemeanor assault.
"This obviously was a thoughtful verdict. I hope we can all move on from this," said defense attorney James Liguori, who hugged Webster after the verdict.
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 was aiming for his upper body. Webster also said he feared for his safety and the safety of others because officers were told Dickerson was armed with a gun, and Dickerson was slow to comply with repeated commands to get on the ground.
Dashboard camera video from another officer's vehicle shows 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.
"I hope in some small way, at least, this is a general deterrent," said deputy attorney general Mark Denney Jr. "We hope that police officers see that if there's a situation where the state feels that they've broken the law, they're going to be held to account."
Liguori has said Webster's indictment resulted from "state machinations" and an "abuse of power."
Prosecutors under former Attorney General Beau Biden took the case to a grand jury last year but failed to get an indictment. Liguori argued in court papers that Democratic Attorney General Matt Denn's decision to take the case to a second grand jury in May with no new evidence was a politically motivated response to nationwide scrutiny of police encounters with black citizens.
Denn, through a spokesman, declined to comment on the verdict.
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.
Dover Police Chief Paul Bernat issued a statement saying the department will evaluate the case and make a determination regarding Webster's status with the department.
Webster has been suspended without pay since being indicted. In November 2013, he was placed on paid leave pending an internal investigation and review of the case by the attorney general's office and the U.S. Attorney's Office, which found no civil rights violation. The internal police investigation found, however, that Webster's actions were outside departmental policy. The police department has said it took "appropriate actions," and that Webster returned to duty in June 2014.
La Mar Gunn, president of the Central Delaware branch of the NAACP, said he was stunned by Tuesday's verdict, calling it 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."
Despite the Dickerson incident, Gunn said he believes the Dover Police Department is one of the best in the state, and that police have shown a willingness to work to improve relations with the black community and reduce tensions.
"I can say unequivocally that the police don't want this either," he said. "They actually care about building some trust and a stronger relationship with the black community."
Gunn said he and others will continue to work on issues important to the black community.
"We're going to prove that not only do black lives matter ... black votes and black dollars matter," he said.
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.
In the criminal case, Webster had rejected an 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. A felony conviction would have carried up to eight years in prison, while a conviction for the lesser misdemeanor typically likely would have resulted in probation but would have precluded Webster from possessing a firearm for five years.
In his closing argument, Liguori said Webster had only seconds to act after Dickerson, who ran from another officer responding to a fight involving a large group of people and was reported to have a gun, repeatedly ignored police commands.
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.