JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The man accused of beating a teen to death at a party back in January has been charged with second-degree murder, upgraded from manslaughter.
Christopher Hoffman is now charged with second-degree murder in the death of Ryan Scott Ford.
Channel 4 spoke to Ford's family Tuesday night, who is calling the new charge a relief.
The family had planned on going to court Wednesday for the final pretrial hearing just like they have for all of the previous ones, but now, they will go with a new expectation.
Ryan Ford's aunt, Cherry Bland, said that the family has been searching for justice since Ryan's death, and now that the state attorney's office has upgraded the charges against the man accused of killing Ford, they think they might be closer to that.
"It was finally some good news in this horrible way things have been going us. We are very, very happy. Very pleased with the state attorney's office for doing this," said Bland. "We felt it should have been done from the beginning, but we're happy it is now."
Bland said that the family knows that there is still a long road ahead before they have any closure from the court proceedings, but the good news comes at a time when they really didn't expect it.
"We will definitely be there tomorrow," said Bland. "We are curious to see what will be said and done, and we hope to come out of there just as happy as we are today."
The family said that the months since Ryan (pictured, right) was killed in January have been very difficult for them, but they have been holding out hope that when all is said and done, they will have justice, even though it won't bring Ryan back.
"Everyday we are going through the process of finding justice for Ryan Scott. As a family that loves one another and misses, we're not whole anymore," said Bland.
Wednesday was set to be the final pretrial hearing for Hoffman. The family said they were ready for jury selection and the trial to take place next week, but with the new charges, they aren't sure what the schedule will be.
Hoffman's attorney, James Hill, issued this statement regarding the upgraded charge:
"Over the past six months, Mr. Hoffman's attorneys have taken sworn deposition testimony, and no new evidence incriminating Mr. Hoffman has been found. The State Attorney still only has what was originally alleged following the date the incident. Nonetheless, the State Attorney's Office has decided to amend and increase Mr. Hoffman's charges.
"The amended charges presented today in court come as no surprise to the defense as it seems overcharging and bending to the will of outside parties rather than focusing on the actual evidence is what is actually happening in this case. What has not been reported is that the much larger and stronger co-defendant, Robert "Bobby" Cline, admitted to law enforcement to punching the victim with such violent force that it resulted in a fractured hand. Additionally, DNA taken from Mr. Hoffman hands by law enforcement on the night of the incident showed that he did not have any of the victim's DNA on his hands and fists. Despite these facts, the State Attorney's Office has chosen to only charge Mr. Cline with simple battery, a misdemeanor. Mr. Hoffman's defense team views the amended charge as nothing more than a tactic commonly used by the State Attorney to scare defendants into entering into a plea deal instead of going to trial on weak State evidence. Obviously, we look forward to presenting our case to a jury."
The state attorney's office released this statement:
"The Rules of Professional Conduct prevent any attorney from commenting about the facts or evidence of a case. The State Attorney's Office filed the amended charge it believes it can prove beyond a reasonable doubt in front of a jury at trial. The SAO will not try this case in the media and will comment further in the appropriate venue – the courtroom."
John Phillips, who's representing Cline, issued this statement Wednesday:
"There repeatedly have been incidents of inaccurate reporting, referring to Mr. Cline and Mr. Hoffman as co-defendants, related to various charges regarding the battery or death of Ryan Scott Ford. They are not co-defendants. Further compounding this error, counsel for Mr. Hoffman, James Hill, has recently indicated that Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Cline are co-defendants. These were two separate incidents, are two separate cases and are not, in fact or at law, apart of any common proceeding.
"Finally, Mr. Hill has made some statements regarding Mr. Cline having a broken hand. This is untrue. Not only did Mr. Cline not use any language to law enforcement (or anyone else for that matter) that he used 'such violent force' as to break his hand or that he broke his hand, but Mr. Cline did not break his hand. Such a characterization is simply untrue. Any mischaracterization is either inaccurate hearsay or misrepresentation."