Prater takes stand
NATCHEZ — Elvis Prater testified on the witness stand Monday that he did not touch the Ellard brothers once he put them in handcuffs on May 23, 2009.
Prater was the last witness to take the stand before lawyers for both sides faced the jury for closing arguments on day five of a federal trial of two Natchez Police officers.
The jury will begin deliberating at 9 a.m. today to arrive at a verdict on the eight-count indictment.
Prater recalled the events of that early May 2009 morning from the stand.
Prater said there were 50 to 75 people outside on Main Street the night in question.
U.S. Attorney Erin Aslan pointed out to Prater on cross-examination that he told the FBI June 1, 2009, that there were 30 to 40 people on the scene.
Prater said he and James Daniel Ellard, known as Daniel, began arguing outside of Dimples because Daniel would not leave the area. He said Daniel looked drunk and like he might be high on drugs.
Prater said when he grabbed Daniel’s hand to place him under arrest for public drunkenness and failure to comply, Daniel threw the first punch and they began exchanging blows at which point Jason Ellard jumped on Prater’s back and started choking him.
Prater said he was fighting in order to survive with both brothers when all three fell.
“I knew I did not want to die on the street because public drunks decided they didn’t want to go home,” Prater said.
Prater said under cross-examination he was 6-foot-3-inches tall and weighed approximately 300 pounds. He said he suffered mostly soreness from the fight on Main Street.
Prater’s lawyer, George Lucas, asked Prater how they fell.
Prater began crying and said he could not remember due to chaos at the scene.
He said he remembers Adams County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Greg Lee and former NPD Sgt. Clarence Hayes coming to the scene. Hayes pepper sprayed the brothers and Lee Tased them, Prater said.
Prater said both men were standing up when they were Tased.
Aslan pointed out that Prater in cross-examination that Prater wrote in his police report that the three of them were on the ground when help arrived. She said Prater testified at a preliminary hearing in August 2009, that he was on the ground with both subjects when they were Tased.
Prater said he helped handcuff both brothers and Lee helped him put Daniel in Prater’s patrol.
Prater said he saw Jason bleeding on Main Street but did not notice the extent of his injuries. Prater transported Daniel to the station. Prater said it was his supervisors’ job, not his, to decide if Jason needed help on Main Street.
Prater then transported Daniel to the station, he said.
“I did not stop (the car); I didn’t even have any red lights,” Prater said.
“I never touched Daniel,” he said.
Prater said he brought Daniel straight to the holding cell because he was drunk and combative and did not want the brothers in the same room.
Prater was questioned why he walked outside to get to the conference room, where he testified he went to write his report.
Prater said he left through the sally port door to help Johnson escort Jason into the jail and when Johnson was not there, Prater said he decided to walk to the conference room outside instead of using the door back in booking area.
“(I thought), it’s summer, I’ll walk (around) the building outside and go to the conference room,” Prater said.
Prater said on cross-examination that his report took a long time to complete, even though it was short, because he was interrupted.
Aslan read a transcript from a preliminary hearing in which Prater was asked how long he took to write his report and he said, “Not long.”
Johnson’s brother-in-law, Stanley Netterville, also took the stand Monday.
Netterville said he was at Johnson’s house the morning of May 23, 2010, helping him prepare for an upcoming party, when Patricia Wilson came over.
Wilson is Johnson’s cousin who testified last week to conspiring with Johnson to commit credit card theft and fraud.
Netterville said when Wilson left Johnson’s house, Johnson noticed money was missing from his brief case.
Johnson’s attorney Dennis Sweet entered a map into evidence marked with a route that showed where someone tried to use the credit card. The line started on John R. Junkin near Johnson’s house and made stops all the way to Walmart in Vidalia. Sweet suggested the map was evidence that Wilson stole the cards from Johnson’s house and tried to use them at stops on the way to Ferriday, where she lives.
Netterville confirmed on cross-examination that he and Johnson are close and that Johnson’s sister, who is Netterville’s wife, is beneficiary of Johnson.
Both sides made closing arguments summarizing their evidence, and the prosecution touched on motives of the defendants while the defense touched on motives of the Ellard brothers.
Aslan said the eight-count indictment can be broken into three categories: beatings and failure to protect; fraud; and lies.
Aslan said Prater tried to blame Lee and the Taser for Jason’s injuries and lied to the FBI, proving his willful intent to commit the acts.
She said Prater deprived the brothers their civil right to be free from unreasonable force from a law enforcement officer. Aslan said the Lee and David Lindsey testified Jason was on the ground when he was Tased.
“Prater admitted (Jason) was on the ground when (Jason) was Tased.”
Aslan said Lee testified he was 5-feet away from Jason when he Tased him, and he did not notice any injuries. Lee and Hayes both said they would have asked for medical assistance on Main Street if they had noticed the injuries.
Aslan said even if the defense argues “chaos and dim lighting” prevented eyewitnesses from seeing the injuries, the surgeon’s testimony that the injury was caused by blunt trauma suggests he was punched.
The ambulance drivers also testified they had never seen that type of injury from a fall.
She said Jason also told Lindsey in the hospital, “Police did this to (me),” Aslan said.
Aslan said Hayes admitted that he did not write in his report or speak about Jason falling on his face until after he heard Jason went to the hospital.
Aslan said Prater had opportunity to commit the crime when he walked out the sally port door.
“(Prater) didn’t walk outside to enjoy a May Mississippi night,” Aslan said.
She said Prater’s motive was payback for embarrassment and disrespect the brothers caused him by fighting him in front of other officers and a crowd of people.
“And Johnson stood there and did nothing, maybe he did nothing, because he already had what he wanted,” Aslan said.
Aslan said although the defense has not painted Wilson as a “model citizen,” her criminal background proves she was the logical choice with whom for Johnson to conspire.
“Suggesting that (Wilson) broke into a patrol car, or a briefcase is laughable, and it doesn’t explain how (the credit cards) got to (Johnson’s) house,” Aslan said.
On the false statement charges, Aslan pointed out that Prater said he did not take long to do his report and claimed to have done it between putting Daniel in the holding cell and when Jason came in.
Ricky Hinson, an NPD detention officer, did not get a booking sheet until approximately one-and-a-half hours later, and Lee said he saw Prater writing his report between 4:47 a.m. and 5:10 a.m., when sheriff’s office records confirm Lee was at the NPD.
Johnson also told FBI he did not know how Wilson got the credit cards, Aslan said.
In the defense’s closing arguments, Lucas told the jury the case had not been proven beyond reasonable doubt.
Lucas said jurors should think of testimonies that they did not hear as reasonable doubt.
“Let’s talk about who didn’t sit in that chair,” Lucas said, referring to the witness stand.
Lucas said no other members of the Ellard family on the scene or FBI crime scene investigators testified.
FBI investigators found blood in the backseat of Johnson’s car on the driver’s side, and Jason said he was assaulted on the passenger side, Lucas said.
“Where are they? Why aren’t they there? (Additional witnesses) are not there because they don’t back up the story of the Ellards,” Lucas said.
“(U.S. prosecutors and the FBI) have all the power and resources, but didn’t put witnesses on the stand to prove Prater is guilty.
“Would you act based on what Daniel Ellard told you, taking in to consideration that he (told his wife) if he raised enough stink, the charges would go away,” Lucas probed.
Lucas said for count 1, which pertains to Prater’s beating of Daniel, the prosecution supplied no physical, circumstantial evidence or testimony other than Daniel’s testimony.
“We submit that you don’t ‘know’ what happened in count 1, and you darn sure can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt,” Lucas said.
Lucas said Count 2, which pertains to Prater’s beating of Jason, offers reasonable doubt since the injuries could have happened outside the bar.
Jason also testified he did not know who beat him, Lucas said.
Lucas also told the jury it is unreasonable to think that if Prater was guilty, that he would not have washed his hands if they had blood on them as one witness testified.
“The government would have you believe (Prater) walked some extra feet — and committed a crime,” Lucas said.
“(The prosecution) is asking you to believe that Johnson, Lindsey, Hayes were on the scene, and he went to assault (Jason) in the parking lot of a police station knowing any second any other officer might pull into the parking lot, and then didn’t wash his hands.”
Lucas also said the paramedics who testified they had never seen those types of injuries after a fall later admitted injuries like Jason’s can occur from fighting.
Hayes also said Jason fell “like a pile of bricks” when he was Tased.
Lucas also pointed out that a recorded conversation with Jason and the FBI revealed Jason telling the FBI his eye was injured when the car was pulled over the first time — before the alleged attacks.
Sweet used much of his closing argument to re-examine written records in which Jason suggested his injuries were incurred on Main Street.
He referred to the testimony of Joseph Williams, who wrote a report on Jason’s condition in the ambulance from the hospital to Natchez to Jackson.
Sweet pointed out in the report where Williams wrote, “Per patient — was Tased and thrown to ground.”
Sweet said the testimonies and reports from medical personnel are credible because medical personnel have no stake in the case.
“They have no dog in this fight,” he said.
Sweet also said Hayes testified that Jason had no reaction when supervisors told Johnson to take Jason in his car to the hospital, which was probably unlikely if the allegations were true.
Sweet said the Ellard brothers also have a personal motive for probing an investigation against his client because they wanted their charges reduced or dropped.
Sweet said if the brothers were convicted as felons, “one guy would be a twice felon and the other guy would lose his job.”
Sweet also suggested Wilson’s testimony should be discredited because she lied to the FBI four times and “she has paperwork to show she’ll steal.”
Sweet said the phone records between Johnson and Wilson show him calling her 12 times and her calling him three times. He said the excessive calls to Wilson likely show Johnson was accusing her of stealing from him.
In Aslan’s last opportunity to argue, she commented on tactics of the defense.
She said the defense used exaggeration of the chaotic melee on Main Street and attempts to deflect blame on the Ellards to distract the jury. Aslan also addressed Johnson’s defense’s argument that Wilson stole the cards from her house.
“This late-breaking story is pathetic,” Aslan said.
Comparing the credit card transactions and phone records provide valid proof of the conspiracy, Aslan said.
Prater was indicted Aug. 20 on two counts of civil rights violations.
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.