BRISTOL, Fla. - A Panhandle jury took roughly an hour on Thursday to declare suspended Liberty County Sheriff Nick Finch not guilty of misconduct stemming from his decision to intervene in a gun arrest.
Finch fought back tears as he hugged his wife and daughter following the acquittal on charges of official misconduct and falsifying public records, which carry a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment upon conviction. He later praised the six men and women who served on the jury during the three-day trial.
"This just proves Liberty County is a good place to live and raise your children," Finch said. "There are good people here."
Several hours after the verdict was reached, Gov. Rick Scott, who suspended Finch after his arrest, issued an executive order to immediately reinstate him.
Finch was arrested in June after prosecutors alleged he had destroyed official records related to the March arrest of Floyd Eugene Parrish. Parrish was arrested by one of Finch's deputies during a traffic stop for carrying a pistol in his pocket without a concealed weapons permit. Two hours later, Finch arrived at the jail and had Parrish released. Finch said he released Parrish because he did not believe state gun laws should trump the Second Amendment.
Finch also denied destroying any records and insisted that it made little sense to charge Parrish since so many people in the county routinely carry guns in their cars and trucks.
State prosecutors argued unsuccessfully that Finch had lied about the reason for releasing Parrish. Assistant State Attorney Jack Campbell contended that Finch actually released Parrish as a favor to his family, for their political support during last year's sheriff's race.
"The Second Amendment doesn't have anything to do with this case," Campbell told jurors during his closing statement. "It's about the truth."
State Attorney Willie Meggs - who said this is the first time he had prosecuted a sheriff during his nearly 30 years in office - said he was disappointed with the outcome.
"We thought we established the case, the verdict should have been guilty on both counts," Meggs said. "It wasn't, so we go on to the next case. We don't win all of our cases. Our job is to try them."
The case had divided this small rural county of 8,000 people located west of Tallahassee. News of the arrest brought attention among conservative media outlets and gun rights activists who have criticized prosecutors and Scott for suspending Finch.
The state built its case around that fact that the original document used to charge Parrish was missing and that someone had whited out logs used at the Liberty County jail. A jail employee testified that she gave Finch the file that contained information about the case. Prosecutors argued that Finch was trying to cover up the fact that he had released Parrish.
When asked after the trial if county residents could now carry concealed weapons without a permit, Finch at first said "of course you can." But then he stopped and said "we will get into that at a later time."
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.