WILMINGTON — State Sen. Darius Brown was found not guilty on two misdemeanor charges — offensive touching and disorderly conduct — on Thursday.
Sen. Brown, a Wilmington Democrat, was arrested after an incident at Taverna Rustic Italian in Wilmington on May 16, 2021. He was dining with a woman, who alleged that he punched her in the head and threw a drink at her from a glass that subsequently shattered before quickly leaving the establishment.
"We are pleased with the verdict," said defense attorney Bill Rhodunda after the jury returned its decision around 12:15 p.m. in the Court of Common Pleas.
"It's the verdict we expected."
The senator opted not to testify, as is his constitutional right, and Judge Carl Danberg instructed the jury not to weigh that in a prejudicial manner for or against him.
The seven-woman, five-man jury departed the fifth-floor courtroom inside the Leonard L. Williams Justice Center at 10:25 a.m. to begin deliberations.
The woman sat at the back of the courtroom during closing arguments. She left quickly after the verdict was returned.
Each of the misdemeanors could have brought up to 30 days' incarceration with a conviction.
Since the arrest, Mr. Rhodunda said he had advised Sen. Brown not to make statements to the media, so the case could be fully decided in the court system. He said there would be no further comment beyond Thursday's reaction to the verdict.
Afterward, Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings said in a statement:
"I’m grateful to the jury for its service but disappointed in the outcome of this case. I’m grateful to the prosecutors who tried the case and gave it their all.
"Above all else I am proud of the victim, who showed tremendous courage in facing the defendant, the jury, and cross-examination in telling her story. These cases are notoriously challenging to prosecute and, in particular, for victims to endure."
Ms. Jennings continued: "The sad reality is that our society’s grip on the gravity of these crimes is still maturing. Each year there are thousands of similar cases here and across this country that never attain this case’s profile, whose victims’ suffering happens in the shadows, and who have to hear the same verdicts rendered.
"But if we had to go back and decide again, approached by the same victim, each of us would do the same thing: seek full accountability and justice for the victim. Nobody should be beneath justice. Nobody should be above the law. "
The Associated Press reported that following the incident, Sen. Brown, a former chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, was removed from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he had chaired. Four months later, he was named executive director of the Wilmington HOPE Commission, a group that works to reduce recidivism among criminal offenders and help them integrate back into the community.
In November, Sen. Brown was removed from his seat on the legislature's joint capital budget committee after being accused of verbally abusing a female state House member. Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, a New Castle Democrat, complained that Sen. Brown became verbally abusive toward her after a ceremony at which Democratic Gov. John Carney signed several criminal justice-reform bills into law, according to AP.
Senate Majority Whip Elizabeth "Tizzy" Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat who chairs the Rules & Ethics Committee, subsequently announced that she would convene the panel to adopt procedures for investigating Sen. Brown's conduct and making any recommendations to the full Senate. The panel, which has not met in 35 years, is expected to hold an initial meeting this month, AP said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola, D-Newark, issued a statement following Thursday's verdict:
“Sen. Darius Brown was acquitted today by a jury who thoroughly reviewed the evidence in his criminal case. What remains clear, however, is that Sen. Brown has been involved in multiple confrontations in public spaces over the last year, regardless of whether that behavior rose to the level of criminal conduct.
"As elected representatives of the people we serve, I believe we owe it to Delawareans to hold ourselves to a higher level of accountability and conduct. In the coming weeks, the Senate Rules and Ethics Committee will fully review all of the allegations leveled against Sen. Brown, and I will have no further comment on the matter until that time.”
During closing arguments Thursday, Mr. Rhodunda recapped witness testimony from the day before, focusing heavily on a restaurant bartender’s apparently inconsistent statements on whether he saw Sen. Brown punch the woman.
While the bartender initially told police he saw a punch, he testified Wednesday that he hadn’t.
According to Mr. Rhodunda, the bartender lied, and “my client was arrested because he said that. He corroborated something.”
Also, according to the defense attorney, the one second when Sen. Brown was seen leaning into the booth on surveillance video would not have allowed enough time to throw a punch and drink, as alleged. The attorney also questioned whether he could have reached the woman, based on her position on the seat.
A patron at the bar and the bartender were seen with their backs to the booth when the punch was allegedly thrown and turned to the sound of breaking glass, Mr. Rhodunda said.
Regarding Sen. Brown’s exit from the restaurant, Mr. Rhodunda asked jurors to consider what pace his client set when leaving the bar, based on the surveillance video.
During his time addressing the jury, Deputy Attorney General Zach Rosen, who was joined by co-prosecutor DAG Joe Grubb, pointed to surveillance video that showed the bartender, the patron and a manager reacting to the sound of broken glass as Sen. Brown left the restaurant and their supposed attempts to console an apparently distraught woman.
The woman said that, following a discussion about a social media post, Sen. Brown threw a drink at her and that the glass holding it shattered, leaving shards in her hair, along with liquid on her body.
During closing arguments Thursday, Mr. Rosen questioned why Sen. Brown immediately left the table and restaurant if the breaking of the glass had been accidental.
While the woman had testified that the get-together went well until the closing moments, the DAG also asked rhetorically why Sen. Brown hadn’t stayed to assist in the cleanup.