Police officers’ trial begins
NATCHEZ — A lawyer for one of the two Natchez Police officers on trial Tuesday reminded the jury during in his opening statement that the defendants were “cloaked in innocence” until the U.S. government proved otherwise.
Federal prosecutors, in turn, attempted to prove guilt, at the first day of the trial at the U.S. Southern Mississippi District courthouse on Pearl Street.
Natchez Police Officer Elvis Prater was indicted Aug. 20 on two counts of civil rights violations relating to the alleged beating of brothers Jason and James Daniel Ellard after the brothers were arrested for fighting May 24, 2009, outside of a bar. Prater was also charged with making false statements to FBI agents.
Officer Dewayne Johnson was indicted Aug. 20 for civil rights violations for witnessing the alleged brutality and failing to protect people in custody. Johnson was also indicted on one count of credit card theft and one count of conspiracy to use it.
The testimony of one witness, Jason’s wife, Jonah Ellard, and photographs of Jason’s injuries were presented to the jury Tuesday, which recessed at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday until 9 a.m. today.
U.S. Attorney Kevonne Small’s opening statement for the prosecution painted pictures of Prater and Johnson as two men who “believed because they were Natchez Police Department officers they could go above authority, break the law and get away with it.”
“We are here today because they cannot (get away with it),” Small said.
Prater and Johnson had separate defense attorneys.
Federal Public Attorney Abby Brumley, one of Prater’s attorneys, suggested in her opening statement that the victims’ injuries were sustained outside of Dimples Lounge, before they were in handcuffs.
The scene was “beyond chaotic,” when a fight poured outside the bar onto Main Street that night, and some of the injuries occurred when Prater was defending himself from two men before they were subdued, Brumley said.
Jackson attorney Dennis Sweet, one of Johnson’s lawyers, said some of Jason Ellard’s personal belongings, including credit cards, were accidentally left in Johnson’s police car and that Johnson did not conspire with his cousin, Patricia Wilson, to use the cards, as charged.
Sweet also suggested in his opening statement that the Ellard brothers contacted the FBI about the incident because they thought creating a big deal of the issue would lessen their own charges of assaulting a law enforcement officer. A criminal case would also lend support to a civil case the Ellard brothers filed against the City of Natchez regarding the incident, Sweet said.
“You have to ask what (the Ellards’) motivation is going to be,” he said.
The prosecution brought Jason Ellard’s wife as its first witness to the stand.
Jonah, who lives in Diamondhead, said she and her family were at Jason’s mother’s house in Crosby the night of the incident.
U.S. Attorney Erin Aslin asked Jonah what her husband told her on the phone when he called from the jail, but one of Johnson’s attorneys, Ed Fletchas, objected on the grounds of hear say.
The objection was sustained, so Aslin asked Jonah what she did as a result of what Jason told her. Jonah said she canceled all of her husband’s credit cards after talking to him. She was unable to cancel Jason’s American Express business credit card, however, because she did not know the information for the company credit card.
Small’s opening statement said several receipts and bank statements would be presented during the trial to show Johnson was involved in stealing Jason’s card, “like a common thief,” and conspired to use it.
Jonah also testified that her husband’s usually neat wallet was disorganized when she saw the wallet at Natchez Regional Medical Center the night of the incident.
Aslin also presented photos of Jason’s injuries to the jury and asked Jonah if the photos were of her husband the night of the incident.
Jonah, who began crying at the sight of the photographs, said that they were. Jonah said her husband did not look like he did in the pictures when he left his mother’s house that night.
Fletchas asked Jonah if her husband had ever injured his jaw and head prior to the night of the incident by falling down when he was drunk, to which Jonah said no.
The pictures revealed a fully swollen-shut left eye and swollen face. The pictures also showed how Jason’s jaw was broken on both sides.
Prior to jury selection, one of Prater’s federal public defenders, George Lucas, addressed a pool of approximately 54 potential jurors about the entrance of photographs of the injuries.
Lucas asked if the pool of potential jurors could be fair and impartial if they saw “horrible,” graphic pictures of the injuries of the alleged victims. He said he wanted to be sure the potential jurors would avoid assuming Prater was guilty simply because someone needed to be blamed for the brutality.
Lucas also asked the pool of jurors to dismiss themselves if they felt they might hold prejudice against either the defense or prosecution because of racial issues.
“The elephant in the room in Mississippi is that the victims were white and the officers were black,” Lucas said.
The jury was made of six black women, four white women and three black males.