BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The man accused of attacking a family for being in the "wrong neighborhood" pleaded not guilty in court Tuesday morning.
Donald Dickerson faces a charge of second-degree battery in the beating of a man, his wife and their daughter when they stopped for gas at a station on Scenic Highway in Baton Rouge in May. He was also arraigned for failing to register as a sex offender. He pleaded not guilty to that charge also.
District Attorney Hillar Moore reiterated his office will try Dickerson as a habitual offender. If convicted of being a habitual offender, Dickerson would automatically receive a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"He's presumed innocent and should he be convicted of second-degree battery, it carries up to five years in prison," Moore said Tuesday. "And, if he's convicted and we file the habitual offender, it's a mandatory life in prison."
Dickerson will be back in court September 24.
He had been scheduled to be arraigned on July 23. However, at the hearing, his attorney told District Judge Lou Daniel she had not been officially hired by the defendant and the hearing was rescheduled.
Dickerson will now be represented by Bernard Blair, an attorney from New Orleans.
"It's a mistake, a misunderstanding," Blair said. "Mr. Dickerson doesn't hate anybody."
Shortly after Dickerson's arrest, there was an outcry from many in the public to charge him with a hate crime. However, Moore said last month his office would not pursue hate crime charges. Instead, Moore said he prefers trying Dickerson as a habitual offender because of the stronger punishment.
Dickerson has previously been convicted of armed robbery, purse snatching and a sex crime. Those convictions, in combination with the latest offense, make Dickerson eligible to be tried as a habitual offender. Moore said the victims are happy with his decision.
The incident happened at a Baton Rouge gas station on May 12. The victim suffered "a broken eye socket, broken nose, and several lacerations to the face," and his wife was knocked unconscious.
"Upon our arrival, we located three victims who were attacked in the parking lot," said Cpl. Tommy Stubbs, spokesperson for the Baton Rouge Police Department.
The owners of the gas station did not want to comment on camera, but said there's a wide variety of customers in and out of the store in the daytime. At night, though, it's not the safest of places, especially with the area having some of the highest crime in the city.
"It was a small scene but it got to be a big scene after the fight broke out and it was a big scene when the police came," said Keisha Henderson, a witness.
Stubbs said a man wearing a pink shirt was in line trying to pay for gas when Donald Dickerson, 41, started making fun of him, leading to an argument.
"The defendant (Dickerson) approached the white male victim," the police report stated.
It went on to read, "the defendant told him he was in the wrong neighborhood and he was not going to make it out." The victim said that's when he "was punched and knocked to the ground."
At this time, his wife got out of the car and ran to help her husband. The victim said, "he continued to struggle with the defendant and was eventually knocked unconscious, which later he awoke in the hospital."
His wife told police, "After running to help her husband, she remembers falling to the ground and (being) knocked unconscious."
According to a close family friend, that's when the couple's teenage daughter got out of the car to check on her parents and, "observed a female punch her mother in the face, when her mother then fell to the concrete, hitting her head on the surface."
The daughter was also punched in the face.
"There were only three suspects but there were multiple people in the parking lot," said Stubbs.
Of those three, Dickerson was arrested and charged with second-degree battery. The other two suspects, Devin Bessye, 24, and Ashley Simmons, 22, were released on site after police wrote them each a summons for simple battery.