Day 2 of trial focuses on 10-minute period

Published 12:13 am Thursday, February 24, 2011

NATCHEZ — At the second day of the trial of two Natchez Police officers, much of Wednesday’s evidence and testimony focused on what happened within a 10-minute span nearly two years ago.

Federal prosecutors argued Natchez Police Department officer Elvis Prater brutally beat Jason Ellard soon after transporting Jason’s brother, James Daniel, from Main Street to a city jail holding cell at 3:45 a.m. The beating allegedly took place before Officer Dewayne Johnson brought a bloody and swollen Jason in for booking at 3:55 a.m. prosecutors said.

Defense lawyers for both Prater and Johnson argue the injuries occurred on Main Street outside a bar, where Jason admits he was fighting with Prater and when Jason fell to the ground after being Tased.

Email newsletter signup

The jury heard testimonies from the alleged victim, Jason, the surgeon who operated on Jason’s broken jaw and jailers and a shift supervisor who were on duty the when the incident allegedly occurred.

Jason testified when he left the scene of his fight with Prater on Main Street in a police car in handcuffs, that Johnson asked him in a calm tone why he tried to fight an officer and then asked Jason if he had any weapons on him.

Jason, who testified he was uninjured when he got into the police car, said he told the man he later learned to be Johnson that he was sorry he did it. Jason said to U.S. Attorney Erin Aslan he would probably not have “grabbed (Prater’s) shoulder” and fought with him outside Dimples Lounge if he had not had too much to drink.

He also responded to Johnson that he thought he had a pocketknife in his pocket, Jason said.

Johnson then pulled over and searched Jason’s pockets. Jason did not have his pocketknife with him, but Johnson took his wallet, Jason said. Johnson then asked for one of Jason’s credit card PINs.

“I don’t know why I gave it to him,” Jason said on the stand.

Jason said the car started moving and then pulled over again, which is when he said he was assaulted.

He said he was laying down in the back seat with his head near the passenger side door swung open and he was punched several times in the face.

“I have no idea how many times I was hit,” Jason said.

Jason testified that a voice yelled, “That will teach you to (mess) with the NPD,” during the assault.

Johnson’s attorney Dennis Sweet suggested to Jason during cross examination he was not being truthful because Jason had signed previous statements that he heard the attacker say “white boys,” at the end of the above-mentioned statement.

“I left out ‘white’ because I didn’t want to make (the incident) racial,” Jason said. “It doesn’t matter what race (his alleged attacker was), bad guys are bad guys.”

Defense attorney George Lucas said Jason, at one point, signed an affidavit for a civil case that said Johnson was the one who assaulted him. In August 2010, Lucas said to Jason that he signed an amendment to the affidavit claiming it was Prater who attacked him.

Jason testified he does not know who attacked him because he was moving his head to avoid blows and could not see behind him from his laid-out position in the back of the car.

“You don’t know who assaulted you, you don’t know where you were assaulted,” Lucas said.

Jason responded that he only knew he was assaulted in the back of a police car with his hands cuffed behind his back. He said his lawyers told him to include both officers initially in the civil suit and wait to determine who beat him based on the outcome of the current, criminal trial.

“The back door opened and I got hit. It could have been (either officer), I don’t know. I’m hoping y’all will figure that out,” Jason said.

Lucas suggested Jason might have pursued the investigation in order reduce felony charges of assault of a law enforcement officer to misdemeanor assault charges in order to keep his job as an airborne survey supervisor for the Navy and Corps of Engineers, which requires a background check.

Prosecutors called to the stand Adams County Sheriff’s deputy and Metro Narcotics Unit Commander David Lindsey, who was a lieutenant shift commander for the NPD the night of May 23, 2009.

Lindsey testified in response to Aslan’s questioning that he went to the booking room after the Ellards were arrested to see the arrestees who had fought with the officer and was surprised when he saw Jason’s injuries. He said he was surprised because he had just left the scene on Main Street after the Ellards had been arrested and did not hear from another officer on the scene that Jason was injured.

Lindsey also testified that he felt comfortable ordering Johnson to safely transport Jason to Natchez Regional Medical Center.

NPD Detention Officer Frederick Marvel, who was working in the booking room the night of the incident, testified for the prosecution, as well.

Marvel said when Prater came into booking at 3:45 a.m. to place Daniel in the holding cell, that he was “sweating,” and “nervous or hyped up.”

Marvel said Prater told him he had been in an altercation and said “When he gets hit he hits back.”

Marvel said Prater did not immediately follow procedure to finish booking Daniel or remove his pocket’s contents after placing him a holding cell but instead went through the sally port door outside.

Sally port doors are doors that lead to a secure, one-car, gated carport where arrested people are transported from police cars to the booking area.

The prosecution showed video of Prater pulling into the sally port, placing Daniel in the holding cell and then immediately exiting the booking area through the sally port door.

In response to Aslan’s questioning, Marvel said officers usually use a side door, not the sally port door, unless they are transporting arrestees or assisting an officer in transporting an arrestee.

Video shows Prater re-entering the booking area from another door 10 minutes later, but his car was still parked in the sally port. Marvel said Prater came to the booking area “around the same time” that Johnson showed up with Jason Ellard.

Johnson was unable to park his car in the sally port, which is camera-recorded, because Prater’s car was left in the spot.

Marvel said it was not highly unusual for officers to use the sally port door or use the holding cell for drunk, combative arrestees.

Former NPD detention officer Ricky Hinson, who was also working in the booking room the night of the incident, testified that he saw dried blood on Prater’s right hand approximately one-and-a-half hours after the innocent occurred.

Hinson said he saw the blood because Prater was writing on a form with his right hand, using the counter between them to write on.

One of Prater’s defense attorneys, Abby Brumley, asked Hinson if the original booking sheet on which Prater was writing with a bloody hand had any blood on it, to which Hinson said no.

Prosecutors called University of Mississippi Medical Center professor and surgeon Dr. Michael F. Angel to testify to Jason’s injuries.

Angel operated on Jason when he was transported by ambulance from NRMC to UMC by installing four titanium plates in his jaw.

Holding a human skull model to demonstrate, Angel showed jurors how Jason’s jaw was broken in two places and dislocated so much that “one piece of bone was hanging free.”

Angel said Jason began to bleed in his mouth during the surgery so much that he had to pack the wound and administer an emergency tracheotomy, which is performed by making an incision in the throat to open the airway.

Angel said the injury he treated was “probably” caused by blunt trauma, “such as a baseball bat, hand or ping-pong paddle.”

When Lucas cross-examined Angel, he asked if it was possible that the injuries he treated could be caused by a fall to the ground or a curb.

Angel said Jason had no scrapes on his body to show physical evidence that he fell down.

Lucas pointed out that Angel did not treat Jason’s entire body, but only the area where he needed surgery.

Lucas asked if it was possible for the swelling from a fall or fight with Prater on Main Street to show up after he was handcuffed.

Angel said some injuries could take “a couple of hours,” to appear.

Sweet showed Angel a report Angel wrote that said Jason was injured as a result of a “disagreement” with a police officer. Angel responded that he did not remember writing that and never talked to Jason when he made the report because he was sedated. He said that information probably came from the emergency room reports.

Sweet also asked Angel about a statement that was in his UMC medical discharge reports — “Jason Ellard is a 30-year-old African-American.”

Sweet said the discharge report also said Ellard was involved in an altercation with a police officer, that the patient did not recall the events and tested positive for intoxication.

Sweet questioned the credibility of the witnesses’ knowledge of the case because the discharge report includes an incorrect race of Jason, who is white.

Angel said he did not write and has never seen the discharge report, and he is not required to review the discharge report.

Sweet also said a report from Emergency Medical Technicians said Jason was beat with a night stick. Lindsey testified that he has not known Prater to carry a night stick and that it is uncommon for NPD officers to carry night sticks, to his knowledge.

Lucas also played a recording of a telephone conversation Jason had with in an investigator from the Attorney General’s Office while he was at UMC.

In the conversation, Jason said his eye was “messed up” from falling outside the bar on Main Street. Jason also said in the same conversation that his jaw was not hurt on Main Street but when he was beat in a police car.

Jason, who previously said he was completely uninjured when he was handcuffed, said he must have told the investigator he was hurt by falling because he confused and on oxycodone pain medication, to which Jason admitted on the recording.

Day two of the trial against two federally indicted officers ran from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday in 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.

Aslan said before the trial’s evening recess at 5 p.m. she might finish presenting her case as early as today, but Bramlette told the jury the trial could possibly last until as late as Monday, excluding the weekend.