LINCOLN — Alfonzo Dennard’s defense lawyer called it the “big gorilla in the room.”
“Let’s call it as we see it,” said Terry Dougherty of Lincoln. “This is a case about a football player. It’s a very honest occupation, but people have opinions about football players. Alfonzo Dennard is a football player. He was a football player in college, and he’s a football player now. And he’s proud of it.”
Dennard, 23, faces a felony charge for allegedly assaulting a police officer at about 2:10 a.m. last April 21. The incident occurred outside a downtown Lincoln bar shortly after closing time. On Monday, a jury of 10 women and four men was chosen for Dennard’s trial, expected to continue through Friday in Lancaster County District Court.
The former standout Husker cornerback, who plays now for the New England Patriots, also faces two misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and the assault of another man.
The assault charges are classified as third-degree, which involves intentionally or recklessly injuring another. Usually a misdemeanor, it becomes a possible felony if the victim is a police officer. If convicted of all three counts, Dennard could face penalties from probation to more than five years in prison and more than $11,000 in fines.
Dennard, donning a white shirt and dress pants, was accompanied Monday by only his lawyer. He sat quietly during proceedings.
His jury was chosen from a pool of more than 50 potential jurors. A court official said the larger-than-usual number was summoned out of concern that Dennard’s status might make it difficult to find impartial jurors.
Upon initial questioning, about half of the pool indicated they had heard about the incident through news accounts or other sources. Only three, however, indicated they knew enough to influence their decision. They were excused from serving.
No one raised their hand when prosecutor Matthew Acton asked if the potential jurors followed Dennard’s athletic career. Less than a handful indicated they knew he plays for the NFL’s Patriots.
“Follow him, how?” one man asked. “We just watched the game. We had knowledge he was on the (Husker) football team.”
Said another man: “Every once in awhile, somebody would make a big play and it would say ‘Dennard’ on the back of the jersey.”
A third man said that while he didn’t search for information about Dennard’s football play, he recognized Dennard from watching Husker games on TV and reading game stories in the Sunday newspapers.
None of those three were selected for the jury.
According to police reports, officers were monitoring “bar break” — closing time — at 2 a.m. in downtown Lincoln when Officer Phillip Tran observed Dennard arguing with another person. Tran reported that he and another officer, Benjamin Kopsa, instructed Dennard to leave to avoid problems. Kopsa tried to arrest Dennard after he allegedly punched another man. When Kopsa grabbed Dennard’s left arm, Dennard allegedly punched the officer in the face with his closed right fist. Tran reported that four officers were needed to take Dennard into custody.
The incident happened a week before Dennard was selected by New England in the seventh round of the NFL draft. Dennard went on to have a strong rookie season, starting in the last half of the year. Dennard reportedly missed some practice time because he needed to be in Nebraska for pre-trial hearings.
Dennard disputes police accounts, Dougherty said.
The attorney questioned jurors about their relationships with police, noting that “we have a case that depends so much upon the credibility of private citizens and police officers.”