LINCOLN — With the NFL draft a week away, former Husker cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was out celebrating with his brothers visiting from Georgia.
Things turned sour as that April night came to a close, with Dennard under arrest for assaulting a police officer and another bar patron, as well as for resisting arrest.
During opening arguments Tuesday at Dennard's trial, lawyers gave different accounts of events leading up to the arrest.
Deputy Lancaster County prosecutor Chris Turner said police repeatedly warned a belligerent Dennard to go home and avoid a confrontation.
“It's not worth getting into a fight downtown — you'll go to jail,” the officers warned.
Instead of going home and avoiding trouble, said Turner, “Mr. Dennard initiated it.”
But Dennard's lawyer, Terry Dougherty of Lincoln, said Dennard was upset already because others had been spoiling for a fight with him and his brothers. One family member had been punched in the face outside a bar. Dennard was headed to another bar to get the rest of his group and leave for home when another man got in his face.
That's the point when police near the scene stepped in, Dougherty said.
Complying with police, Dennard was walking away when he collided with another man as both crossed the street from opposite directions, Dougherty said.
What happened after is in dispute. Prosecutors say Dennard punched the man and then Officer Benjamin Kopsa when he moved in to arrest Dennard.
Dennard's lawyer said the collision in the street amounted to a shoving match. He said Dennard fought off the police officer because he believed he was being attacked from behind by someone else. Dougherty said Dennard is guilty of nothing more than resisting arrest.
Dennard, 23, plans to testify in his own defense during the trial, expected to continue through most of the week in Lancaster County District Court. He is charged with third-degree assault on the officer, third-degree assault on the other man and resisting arrest. If convicted of all three counts, he could face as much as seven years in prison and a $12,000 fine.
A jury of 10 women and four men was chosen Monday to decide the case. Court officials summoned an unusual number of potential jurors out of concern that Dennard's status as a high-profile athlete would jeopardize efforts to find impartial jurors.
Dougherty called it the “gorilla in the room.”
“Let's call it as we see it,” he said. “This is a case about a football player. It's a very honest occupation, but people have opinions about football players.”
Upon initial questioning, about half of the jury 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 New England 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 the 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. 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.
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.”
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