Webster found not guilty in assault case

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Defense lawyer Jim Ligouri leaves Kent County Courthouse in Dover after the acquittal verdict for Thomas Webster IV. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

DOVER — A 12-member jury of nine women and three men on Tuesday found Dover Police Cpl. Thomas Webster IV, 42, not guilty of assaulting a suspect with a kick to the jaw during an Aug. 24, 2013, apprehension.

The jury’s decision followed 16 hours of deliberations after 15 hours of trial testimony and evidence presentation that often focused on interpreting just a few seconds of dashcam video.

In a nearly full courtroom including 40 observers, 11 media members and at least 12 uniformed security staff, the jury forewoman announced a not guilty verdict for felony second-degree assault and a lesser included option of misdemeanor third-degree assault.

The audience followed Judge Ferris Wharton’s firm instruction not to make any outbursts when a verdict announced.

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Co-prosecutor Mark Denney speaks to the media on the steps of Kent County Courthouse after the verdict was read Tuesday.

The judge noted that the case obviously had a lot of people who were invested emotionally in the matter, but outward responsive displays would not be tolerated.

Defense lawyer Jim Liguori said the verdict was “obviously thoughtful” while noting the time spent presenting the case and jury considerations that followed. He hoped that “we can all move on” and said the prosecution had a burden of beyond a reasonable doubt of proof that was not met.

Regarding his client’s professional future, Mr. Liguori said, “He’s going to move forwa rd and try to see if he’ll fit into his prior job …”

Asked if Cpl. Webster, a Dover police officer for more than 10 years, was available for comment, Mr. Liguori said his client decided to exit out a different door away from the awaiting media.

Cpl. Webster had been suspended without pay by the Dover Police Department following his indictment in May in connection with the confrontation with Lateef Dickerson, 29 at the time.

Mr. Dickerson did not attend the trial. He is reportedly being sought by multiple law enforcement jurisdictions on various felony counts, including a Middletown area weapons case, according to the Delaware Department of Justice.

Shortly afterward Tuesday’s verdict, Dover Police Chief Paul Bernat released the following statement through a spokesman:

“Earlier this afternoon, the jury in the Thomas Webster assault case returned a verdict of not guilty. The Dover Police Department respects the decision of the jury and has remained fully cooperative throughout the judicial process.

“At this time the Dover Police Department will now evaluate the details of the case and make a determination in the days ahead regarding Officer Webster’s status with the Dover Police Department.”

The incident unfolds

According to testimony, the Aug. 24, 2013, incident unfolded after Dover police officers responded to a reported large fight in progress at a now-closed Hess gas station on U.S. 13.

The report included a suspect described as fleeing with a weapon, along with several other persons scattering on foot and in a vehicle as police arrived.

Shortly afterward, at approximately 11 p.m., Cpl. Webster and another Dover officer located a man later identified as

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Thomas Webster IV

Mr. Dickerson and matching the description of a possibly armed person in the area of U.S. 13 and Maple Parkway.

With firearms drawn, the officers commanded Mr. Dickerson to go to the ground. Police said Mr. Dickerson continued not to comply after Cpl. Webster unsuccessfully attempted to kick the suspect in the back of the leg.

As Mr. Dickerson moved onto his hands and knees on the ground before becoming fully prone, Cpl. Webster was seen on dashcam video landing a kick that dropped Mr. Dickerson into an unconscious state.

During the trial, Cpl. Webster testified that he was directing the kick toward Mr. Dickerson’s upper body, but mistakenly struck his head instead.

The officer said he was concerned for police and public safety at the time of an extremely tense and dangerous situation that included reports of several other suspects still at large.

Mr. Dickerson suffered a broken jaw during the incident.

An original resisting arrest charge against Mr. Dickerson in the incident was later dropped.

The prosecution argued that the kick to the jaw was excessive and that Mr. Dickerson was complying with orders when he was struck.

“I hope in some small way, at least, this is a general deterrent,” said Deputy Attorney General Mark Denney Jr., who co-prosecuted the case with Danielle Brennan. “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.”

Declined plea agreement

Before the trial began, Cpl. Webster declined the prosecution’s offer to plead guilty to misdemeanor third-degree assault, surrendering all law enforcement certifications and agreeing never to serve as a police officer again.

A felony conviction could have brought up to eight years in prison, while a misdemeanor finding likely involved probation and a firearm possession ban for five years.

After Mr. Dickerson’s girlfriend reportedly filed a complaint with Dover Police in October 2013, then-police chief Jim Hosfelt and command staff reviewed dashcam video and contacted the Delaware Department of Justice.

With then Attorney General Beau Biden in office a grand jury chose not to return an indictment.

Attorney General Matt Denn renewed the case after taking office in January and an indictment was brought. Mr. Liguori questioned why the case was sought with no new evidence presented and believed a nationwide trend criticizing police officers on duty fueled part of the decision to seek indictment.

“We feel vindicated by the fact that the jury took three days to deliberate,” prosecutor Denney said. “…. In light of everything, the new attorney general was entitled to have his shot at it.”

Fred Calhoun, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Delaware chapter, said the verdict shows that the community has confidence and belief in how law enforcement operates.

“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,” he said.

Last week, city officials and the ACLU of Delaware confirmed that a resolution has been reached in Mr. Dickerson’s civil lawsuit against Dover and Cpl. Webster that he filed in September 2014, though no other details are currently available.

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