On Thursday morning, Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard will be back in a Lincoln, Neb., courtroom to be sentenced by Judge Stephanie Stacy after his February conviction on an assault charge.
The former University of Nebraska standout was arrested in the early-morning hours on April 21, 2012, just days before the NFL draft.
After celebrating with friends at some of Lincoln’s bars, Dennard found himself facing charges of assault against a police officer, a Class 3-A felony in Nebraska, misdemeanor resisting arrest, first offense, and misdemeanor assault.
When the weeklong trial ended in February, Dennard was found guilty on the felony assault and resisting arrest charges.
The felony conviction carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison or a $10,000 fine, though there is no minimum penalty; there is also no minimum punishment for the resisting arrest charge, and it has a maximum of one year in prison or a $1,000 fine.
Dennard had an altercation with college student Ben Samani as the two crossed the street in opposite directions, an incident that officer Ben Kopsa witnessed.
Kopsa approached Dennard, and Dennard was accused of hitting Kopsa during their interaction. A 17-second video taken by an onlooker was used as evidence during the trial; Lancaster County prosecutors told jurors that it was clear from the video that Dennard had been the aggressor and punched Kopsa.
Defense attorney Terry Dougherty argued that it was impossible to tell from the video whether Dennard had hit the officer, in part because it was so dark and also because the video was partially obscured by onlookers.
When Dennard took the stand, he admitted to resisting arrest and also to hitting Samani in the chest, but insisted that he did not intentionally hit Kopsa.
But the jury disagreed and the guilty verdict was handed down on Feb. 20.
This is Dennard’s first offense, and Lancaster County attorney Joe Kelly said he would not make a sentencing recommendation to Stacy, though that is standard procedure in the county.
Dougherty will present Stacy with reasons why Dennard’s sentence should be “this and not that,” he said in February.
Part of Dougherty’s argument could be that Dennard paid a price — literally — for his arrest because it caused his draft stock to drop. Projected as a mid-round pick, New England selected Dennard in the seventh round, and his total rookie contract as a seventh-rounder is about $1 million less than it would have been had he been chosen in the fourth round.
It is expected that Dennard will have to serve some time in jail, though it is difficult to speculate how long his sentence will be. Provided he starts his term within days, a 90-day sentence would mean he would be released in mid-July, just before the start of training camp.
But a 120-day sentence would push his return into August, and 180 days means he wouldn’t be with the team until early October, well into the regular season.
There is also the question of whether the NFL will punish Dennard under its personal conduct policy. Since he was not a league employee at the time of his arrest, it stands to reason that he should not be; should commissioner Roger Goodell try to suspend Dennard, the NFL Players Association would fight it on those grounds.
With any length of time, there will be questions about Dennard’s physical condition once he is released.
Dennard started seven of the Patriots’ final 10 regular-season games and both playoff games. He recorded three interceptions, including an 87-yard return for a touchdown against the Colts Nov. 18.
New England re-signed Aqib Talib and still has former second-round pick Ras-I Dowling on the roster, though he remains largely unknown because injuries have caused him to miss most of his first two seasons.
Though the Patriots are intent on keeping Devin McCourty at safety this season, they could be forced to at least temporarily move him back to corner if Dennard is unavailable into the regular season.