Defense starts case in officers’ trial
NATCHEZ — On day four of a federal trial for two Natchez Police officers, more evidence was presented supporting fraud charges, and witnesses for the defense testified about a crucial sequence of events before the alleged beatings.
The prosecution called its last witness, an FBI investigator, who testified to statements made by defendants Elvis Prater and Dewayne Johnson during the investigation. The agent also identified phone and bank records supporting the testimony of Patricia Wilson relating to Johnson’s theft and fraud charges.
After the prosecution rested, the defense called five witnesses: an NPD officer on the scene the morning of the incident; three paramedics; and a bouncer at the bar where the chaos poured out from the morning of the incident on May 23, 2009.
FBI Special Agent Claudia Arias, who has worked for the FBI for seven years and currently works in the Jackson field division, testified about the alleged lies Johnson and Elvis Prater are charged with telling to the FBI.
U.S. Attorney Erin Aslan questioned Arias about the key pieces of information of the case involving the beatings of James Daniel — who goes by Daniel — and Jason Ellard.
Arias said the key points of the investigation were who was responsible for the assaults and at what point the force was used.
Arias, who was assigned the case four days after the incident, testified that in a June 1, 2009, interview with Prater, Prater told her he noticed Jason’s swollen eye and bleeding on Main Street, prior to Jason being placed in the patrol car.
Arias stated since Prater’s whereabouts was unknown after he placed Daniel in the holding cell, Prater had motive and opportunity to the commit the crime, and so his statement about where he was at that time was crucial to the investigation.
Arias testified Prater told he was writing his report at the time in question.
Arias said Prater lied because he was seen on NPD jail video surveillance walking out the sally port doors instead of the side door that is closest to the conference room, where officers write reports.
Prater’s attorney, George Lucas, asked Arias on cross-examination if it was possible that Prater walked outside to walk 100 extra feet for fresh air on the way to the conference room in order to calm down after a chaotic fight on Main Street.
“Anything’s possible,” Arias said.
Lucas also questioned why Arias did not record interviews with Prater and Johnson.
“You have guns, cars and surveillance … the one thing you don’t have is a tape recorder?” Lucas asked.
Arias said the FBI investigators are not allowed to record interviews. She said she had a second agent with her who reviewed the report she wrote, which was based on notes she took during the interview.
Arias also testified about evidence recovered in an investigation of credit card theft and fraud charges.
Wilson said in her testimony that her cousin, Johnson, called her several times throughout Saturday, May 23, 2009, to conspire to use and then destroy the card that was declined.
Phone records show Johnson called Wilson 12 times that day, and Wilson called Johnson three times.
Wilson testified she met up with Johnson in the early afternoon and went to various stores at the Natchez Mall and became separated. When they agreed, via cell phone, to meet back up in the middle of the mall, Johnson had shopping bags that contained shoeboxes.
Cell phone records show Johnson calling Wilson at approximately 1:08 p.m., the same time as a transaction for $171.20 at Sports Addition store.
Arias said records show the tennis shoes purchased were a size 11. Arias said Johnson told her in an FBI interview that he wore size 11 shoes.
Johnson’s attorney Dennis Sweet asked Arias if she had inquired about the shoe sizes of Wilson’s husbands or four sons’ feet, suggesting Wilson made the purchases, to which Arias said she had not.
Sweet pointed out that a woman’s name was on the credit card used at the sporting goods store. He asked Arias if she used handwriting analysis available to the FBI to investigate who signed receipt. Arias said she did not investigate the signature.
“Is that (information) important?” Sweet asked?
“Yes,” Arias said.
Video of Wilson attempting to use a stolen American Express card at Walmart in Vidalia was shown Thursday. When Wilson swiped a declined card twice, the video shows her immediately making a call on her cell phone. Wilson testified the call was to Johnson to discuss the card.
Wilson called Johnson at 2:23 p.m., the time of the failed $318 transaction from credit card records.
Credit card records show a transaction from that day prior to the time Johnson reportedly passed the card to Wilson.
Arias said Johnson also gave conflicting statements on two separate occasions about the whereabouts of alleged victim Jason Ellard’s wallet.
In one statement, Johnson said he retrieved Jason’s wallet from his pocket at the hospital to give the hospital staff his identification and insurance information. In a later statement, Johnson said he went to retrieve the wallet from his police car to get Jason’s identification.
Johnson’s attorney Dennis Sweet questioned Arias about other fraudulent uses of Jason’s stolen credit cards. He said a second American Express card was used at Sonic Drive-Inn in Ferriday, where Wilson lives, a week after the date of the incident on May 23, 2009.
Sweet asked Arias why she did not investigate that transaction. Arias said she and investigators from the Mississippi Attorney General’s office split some of the investigative work.
The prosecution rested its case after the testimony of Arias, and the jury was dismissed to allow the judge and lawyers to have a discussion.
Lucas and one of Johnson’s attorneys, Ed Fletchas, both made motions to acquit their clients based on insufficient evidence to support the counts.
Federal Judge David Bramlette denied the motions for acquittal on the basis that there was sufficient evidence to submit the case to a reasonable jury to return a verdict.
The first witness called for the defense was Lt. Clarence Hayes, who was formerly a sergeant at the NPD and on-duty the morning of the incident.
Hayes testified that Jason fell face-first when he was Tased but Hayes could not confirm if he was badly injured before he was placed in Johnson’s police car.
Hayes’ testimony about Jason’s fall contradicts the then on-duty Adams County sheriff’s deputy Greg Lee’s testimony that Jason was already on the ground when he was Tased. Lee was the deputy who Tased the Ellard brothers.
Defense attorneys have suggested during the trial that Jason received the injuries mostly as a result of falling face-first off a curb after being Tased in addition to the blows he endured while fighting with Prater on Main Street.
“Both were standing when Tased. Jason fell face down on the ground,” Hayes said.
Hayes said he had never seen a Taser used before since NPD officers do not carry them, and he recalled his reaction when he saw Jason go down.
“I was surprised at how quickly (Jason went down) — like a sack of bricks he hit the ground,” Hayes said.
Hayes said he helped Prater handcuff Jason. When Johnson arrived shortly thereafter, Hayes said he helped Johnson put Jason in the police car.
In response to questioning, Hayes said at that time it was a stressful situation because approximately 20-30 people were on Main Street acting obnoxious.
“It was a bad night, a real bad night,” Hayes said. “It was a stressful evening.”
Hayes said he did not notice while handcuffing Jason or putting him in the patrol car if Jason was injured.
“I don’t recall seeing any injuries because I wasn’t looking for any,” Hayes said.
He said the situation was distracting.
“Nothing stood out. My adrenaline was flowing, and order was broken and I was trying to maintain it.”
Hayes, who was a supervisor that night, said he would have called for medical assistance on the scene if he had noticed that Jason looked the way he did when Hayes saw him later that morning.
Hayes also testified that he immediately ordered Johnson to take Jason to the hospital when he saw him in the booking area.
Emergency Medical Technician Tracy Tate said he was called to the scene to treat a girl who was affected by the pepper spray, and while driving the ambulance he stopped at a red light on Pearl and Main streets.
Tate said he saw a man with a shirt on — Jason Ellard — running to the corner of Main and Pearl streets when Lee Tased him.
“He fell face-first, like a tree,” Tate said.
Tate also saw Jason walking handcuffed an injured outside of Natchez Regional Medical Center when Tate was there, working.
“At that particular time, I thought that’s a pretty bad injury,” Tate said.
U.S. Attorney Kevonne Small asked Tate if he thought Jason’s injuries he witnessed at the medical center could be sustained by a fall based on his 11 years experience, to which Tate responded, “No.”
EMT Thomas Perry, who was riding as a passenger in the ambulance with Tate, had similar testimony.
Perry, who has been a paramedic for 14 years, said he saw a man, who he later believed to be Jason, hit a police officer in the head and run toward Pearl Street when he was Tased and fell down on his face.
Perry, who also saw Jason later outside the medical center, said he was surprised by his injuries and has never seen injuries like Jason’s as the result of a fall.
Lucas asked Perry if he had ever seen those injuries from a fight, to which Perry said, “Yes.”
Joseph Williams, a paramedic who rode in the ambulance with Jason from NRMC to University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, also testified.
Williams wrote a standard report in the ambulance about Jason’s condition based on what he had heard from other medical personnel at NRMC and reports he heard from the patient.
Sweet pointed out in the report where Williams wrote, “Per patient — was Tased and thrown to ground.”
Williams said that was a statement Jason told him in the ambulance.
Aslan quoted Williams’ transcript from a testimony he said Williams made to the grand jury on April 21, 2010.
“He had a basic description of what happened. He said he was Tasered and assaulted by the Natchez Police Department,” Aslan read.
Williams said in the report Jason was alert according to medical standards of consciousness, although Williams said Jason was sleeping most of the ride to Jackson.
Troy Whittington, a volunteer bouncer at Dimples the morning of the incident, also testified for the defense.
Whittington said he noticed the Ellard brothers, and especially Jason, trying to start fights with people inside the bar before the crowd poured into the street.
Whittington confirmed to Aslan’s questioning that he does not remember parts of what happened during that early morning inside Dimples.
He said both brothers were bleeding immediately when the exited Dimples as a result of fighting inside, before an altercation with the police.
Aslan read Whittington a grand jury testimony during cross-examination wherein Whittington said he never saw the brothers with injuries. Whittington said the transcript was incorrect.
Whittington said he saw one of the brothers, who was identified by lawyers as Jason, tackle Prater before both brothers began punching and grabbing around Prater’s waist, near his weapon.
Whittington said he deduced the man starting fights was Jason because Jason was in the adjacent hospital room later that night at NRMC, where Whittington said he was being treated for a cracked rib.
Whittington confirmed he previously testified that he saw one of the brothers in the fight with the police being placed into an ambulance on Main Street. He admitted he must have assumed the man was placed in an ambulance at the time.
Whittington testified at least three times that the transcripts from his grand jury testimony were incorrect when his previous statements contradicted the testimony he gave in court Friday.
Day four of the trial against two federally indicted officers ran from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday.
Federal Judge David Bramlette told the jury at the end of the day Friday the case would hopefully be turned over to the jury for a verdict Monday. He did not sequester the jury but instructed them not to speak about the case to anyone in order to deliberate based only on evidence and testimony presented in the courtroom.
Prater was indicted Aug. 20 on two counts of civil rights violations relating to the alleged beating of brothers.
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.