Thursday, April 17, 2014
By TREVOR MAXWELL
PORTLAND — A former exotic dancer from Westbrook got her day in court on Wednesday, more than three years after a confrontation with police that she claims left her with a permanent shoulder injury, nightmares and chronic pain.
Rosanna Morelli, 55, told jurors at U.S. District Court that South Portland Detective Sgt. Steven Webster slammed her against a wall and pinned her there during a prostitution sting operation at a hotel. Morelli later sued Webster for alleged use of excessive force.
''It was traumatic,'' said Morelli, the first witness to testify at the civil trial. ''I just couldn't understand why this happened.''
This morning, Webster is expected to take the stand and tell the jury his version of the events of March 3, 2006.
Now head of detectives for South Portland, Webster has said during earlier court proceedings that he did not use excessive force against Morelli, but that he lawfully detained her for questioning about suspected crimes.
''He's here for his day of justice,'' Webster's lawyer, Edward Benjamin, said during the trial's opening arguments.
Benjamin said Morelli injured her shoulder before the sting operation and used the run-in with Webster in an attempt to collect money from the city of South Portland.
South Portland police, along with Portland police and an assistant district attorney for Cumberland County, set up the sting operation on March 3, 2006, at the Merry Manor Inn in South Portland. There was a hidden camera and an undercover officer in one hotel room, and a closed-circuit monitor and several officers in an adjacent room.
The officers placed a call to Serena's Heaven on Earth, an escort and exotic services business that was under investigation. The business arranged to have Morelli, who was 52 at the time and went by the name ''Vanessa,'' meet the supposed client. Morelli immediately suspected the client was affiliated with police. She took $20 from a stack of bills the officer had placed on a table, saying she deserved money for gasoline and inconvenience.
Several officers left the surveillance room and met Morelli in the hallway. She gave the $20 to one of them and walked quickly by another officer before Webster blocked her.
Morelli testified that she believed she was free to leave, so she tried to get around Webster in the 5-foot-wide hallway. Her jacket, and perhaps part of her arm, made contact with Webster. She said he grabbed her wrist, slammed her against the wall, and pinned her there by her upper arms for three or four minutes.
''He said, well, I'm not arresting you, but you're not going anywhere Missy,'' Morelli said. She said Webster then took her back into one of the hotel rooms and questioned her before letting her leave. She was not charged with any crimes.
Morelli told the jury that she went to the hotel that day to perform an exotic dance, and nothing more, and that she got annoyed when she realized the client was not who he claimed to be. Morelli said she suffered a rotator cuff tear that continues to cause chronic pain, and she is not able to dance anymore or take part in activities she used to love, like tennis.
Zachary Heiden, legal director for the Maine Civil Liberties Union, has represented Morelli along with Portland lawyer Barbara Goodwin.
''Rosanna has done jobs in her life that you may not approve of, but that doesn't matter,'' Heiden told the jury. ''The Constitution protects all of us.''
Benjamin, Webster's attorney, cross-examined Morelli for more than an hour. He asked her to explain some discrepancies between her testimony and statements she had made to police after the incident, plus a deposition she gave in the case.
Three days after the sting operation, Morelli told South Portland Lt. Frank Clark that she had pushed and moved Webster with her arms before he grabbed her. On Wednesday, she denied pushing the sergeant, and said that her statement to Clark was not precise because she wasn't thinking clearly.
Benjamin also noted a medical record showing that Morelli went to the Maine Medical Center emergency department on Oct. 2, 2005, after falling on her shoulder while working with horses. She reported pain of 9 on a 10-point scale, according to the record. When the South Portland Police Department was conducting its internal investigation of the matter, Morelli told her attorneys that she had pulled a muscle in her arm while working out at the gym in October of 2005, but that it was minor and had nothing to do with the injury she allegedly sustained on March 3 at the Merry Manor Inn.
Benjamin asked Morelli why she failed to notify her doctor after March 3 about the earlier injury, and why she apparently told her attorneys about a pulled muscle at the gym, but not about a fall while working with horses.
Morelli said that she had suffered two arm injuries in October of 2005, but that she was not experiencing any arm pain at the time of the confrontation with Webster, so she did not think the older injuries were relevant, and the doctor didn't ask her about them.
During the cross-examination, Benjamin also challenged Morelli about her frequent visits to the Lifestyle gym in Portland, during the same time frame in which she was reporting serious pain and limited function of her right arm to her doctors. Morelli said she went to the gym mostly to walk on the treadmill and do cardiovascular workouts on bicycles and other equipment, but she did not use her injured arm when she was in pain.
A Portland police officer and two South Portland officers who had been part of the sting operation testified on Wednesday afternoon. Timothy Farris, Todd Bernard and Jeffrey Caldwell said Morelli was upset, yelling and using profanities when she attempted to leave the hotel. The officers said she needed to be detained so they could question her about Serena's Heaven on Earth.
They also wanted to make sure that she had not broken any laws while in the room with the undercover officer, and that she had not stolen any other money from the table.
Farris and Caldwell said they saw Morelli shove Webster, and that he grabbed her and pinned her against the wall for between 10 and 30 seconds.
The case is expected to go to the jury for deliberation today after Webster's testimony and closing arguments by the lawyers.
Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: