Jury takes less than three hours to decide

Updated: May 4, 2005, 6:05 PM ET
Associated Press

NORMAN, Okla. -- A former Nebraska football player was acquitted Wednesday of an aggravated assault and battery charge stemming from a pre-game incident in which an Oklahoma spirit squad member was injured.

A 12-member jury deliberated for just less than three hours before declaring Darren DeLone innocent on the felony charge. After the verdict was read, DeLone let out a muffled gasp and pumped his right fist over the table.

"First, I want to thank God. I just want to thank everybody. I prayed to God," said DeLone, who said he expected the acquittal. "I was just ready for it, no doubt."

DeLone's defense attorney, Garvin Isaacs, said in his closing arguments Wednesday that the 6-foot-5, 315-pound former Nebraska offensive lineman was "wrongfully accused" and that the injuries suffered by 19-year-old Adam Merritt were accidental.

"He's an innocent man," Isaacs said, pointing to DeLone in the Cleveland County courtroom.

"No crime was committed by anybody. It was a pure and complete accident," Isaacs said.

Isaacs pointed out inconsistencies among prosecution witnesses and said it was based on "suggestion and guesswork." He called it "one of the most frightening cases that I've ever seen in my life."

"This case was like a Ruf/Nek shotgun: a lot of noise, a lot of smoke and no bullets," Isaacs said afterward. The attorney had argued that the noisy, smoky shotguns that the Ruf/Neks carry helped escalate tensions before the incident.

Isaacs said DeLone, a 23-year-old senior, had to drop two classes and missed two NFL tryouts because of the tension and stress caused by the impending trial. As a result, DeLone will not graduate this semester.

"It's been difficult just the fact that I was falsely accused," DeLone said. "I respect the Oklahoma fans. They've been nothing but nice to me."

District Attorney Tim Kuykendall alleged that DeLone, who did not testify in his own defense, deliberately ran into Merritt after verbal sparring between Nebraska players and Ruf/Neks prior to the Cornhuskers' game at Oklahoma on Nov. 13.

Kuykendall said eight prosecution witnesses "were unequivocal" in their testimony that a player wearing DeLone's number, 67, appeared to deliberately strike Merritt during blocking drills along the sidelines near the end zone of Owen Field.

Kuykendall said that the collision occurred after DeLone allegedly pointed toward the Ruf/Neks and engaged in "trash-talking" with one of them.

"Thirty seconds later, wham!" Kuykendall said as he shoved his fist into his open hand. "He's knocked against the wall. He's got two teeth on the ground."

Merritt lost one tooth in the collision and had another one severed at the gum line. Isaacs argued that Merritt was injured because he was not paying attention and claimed that another player hit the Oklahoma freshman accidentally.

When the verdict was announced, Merritt had no reaction. He left the courthouse without commenting.

"I feel sorry for the victim and his family in this case," Kuykendall said.

Had DeLone been convicted, he could have faced up to five years in prison, up to one year in the county jail or a $500 fine. When he was pronounced innocent, his mother, Dorothy DeLone, raised her right hand in the air and began to cry.

"It was just a test of faith from God. God is good," Dorothy DeLone said.

Her husband, Alex DeLone, credited Isaacs' work for the acquittal, saying: "Without him, we wouldn't be in the position we're in."

Tim Cassidy, the associate athletic director for football at Nebraska, said the case demonstrates that a football field can be a dangerous place.

"We're all very disappointed that a young man was hurt in this," Cassidy said. "There's got to be a clear field before the game, during the game and after the game. "We're looking out for the safety of the fans. There's got to be a clear line there."

In a statement issued by spokesman Keith Mann, the Nebraska athletic department called the incident ``terribly unfortunate'' and voiced a desire to take furthers steps avoid similar occurrences in the future.

"The University hopes that this case will create a dialogue among administrators to more clearly define the boundaries between student-athletes and spectators," the statement said. "We believe clearer boundaries, roles and responsibilities need to be drawn up for anyone on the field including alumni, support staff, spirit groups, players and coaches to mitigate the chances of future incidents arising."

University of Oklahoma spokesman Kenny Mossman said the school had no immediate comment.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press