A jury acquitted a police officer Tuesday of assault after he kicked a suspect in the head, breaking his jaw.
Jurors deliberated for about 16 hours over three days before acquitting Dover police officer Thomas Webster IV of felony assault and misdemeanor assault.
Webster testified he didn't intend to kick Lateef Dickerson in the head in August 2013 and instead was aiming for his upper body. Webster also said he feared for the safety of himself and 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.
Prosecutors argued Webster acted recklessly and used excessive force.
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 would result in probation.
Defense attorney James Liguori told jurors Friday in his closing argument that Webster had only seconds to act after Dickerson, who ran from another officer responding to a fight involving a large group of people, repeatedly ignored commands by Webster and another officer, Christopher Hermance, to get on the ground.
"These split-second decisions and judgments ... not only were they justifiable, they were, in fact, necessary," Liguori said.
Prosecutors contended Webster intended to kick Dickerson in the head.
"Whether it was a mistake, whether it was intentional, it was reckless behavior," prosecutor Danielle Brennan told jurors. Brennan also said the reports filed by Webster after the encounter were "inconsistent and incorrect" and didn't include his contention at trial that he didn't intend to kick Dickerson in the head.
Video from a dashboard camera in Hermance's vehicle shows Dickerson had placed his hands on the ground but wasn't fully prone when Webster kicked him.
"He was getting down to the felony-prone position," said Brennan, referring to the term used by police when a potentially dangerous suspect is flat on the ground with his arms extended.
The defense had argued that Dickerson was in a "sprinter's position" from which he could have lunged at the officers, pulled a weapon or fled with a gun.
"Do any of you believe that Lateef Dickerson would have complied with Tom Webster's requests to get on the ground if Hermance didn't show up?" Liguori asked jurors.
Dickerson, who has a 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.
Defense witnesses, including a police academy defensive tactics instructor and former FBI agent who is an expert in the use of force, testified that Webster acted reasonably. A prosecution expert disagreed, saying Dickerson did not present an "objectively reasonable threat" at the time.
Liguori maintained Webster's indictment was the result of "state machinations" and an "abuse of power." A grand jury declined to indict the officer after the encounter, but a second one indicted Webster earlier this year. Liguori argued in court papers that Democratic Attorney General Matt Denn's decision to take the case to the second grand jury with no new evidence was a politically motivated response to nationwide scrutiny of police encounters with black citizens.