Defense witnesses: It was too dark to see

Attorneys argue state can't prove who threw fatal punch that killed 19-year-old

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The defense presented its case Wednesday for day two of the trial of Christopher Hoffman, accused of second-degree murder in the death of a teen who died during a fight at a bonfire early last year.

The 26-year-old is charged in the death of 19-year-old Ryan Ford in January 2013. Hoffman opted not to testify.

Defense attorneys called three witnesses, all of whom were at the party, including the man who organized it. The men, all in their 20s, said they didn't know Ford until that night, and they all said they never saw Hoffman in a fight with Ford.

The defense is arguing that it was extremely difficult to see that night, so no one really knows who got in a fight with Ford and who threw the fatal punch.

Christopher Sherick, who organized the party through Facebook, specifically writing "no fighting" on the invite, was the only one Wednesday who mentioned that Ford's sister was at the hospital that night and was adamant in telling police that Hoffman was the one who did it. But all three defense witnesses basically said it was impossible to see who was fighting who because of the darkness and multiple fights going on at once.

"I heard Kristi (Ford) scream," Sherick said. "We all turned around and everything came to a dead stop, and people started pulling their phones out for light and that's when I saw Ryan on the ground. At first I didn't know who he was. I was asking, 'Who is this?' And (Kristi Ford) screamed out, 'That's my brother.'"

Defense witness Bruce Weeks, 25, said it was very hard to tell who was in front of him at the party, even if just a few feet away, unless someone was near the bonfire, because it was a dark and wooded area. Weeks also said Hoffman wasn't drinking that night because he had to drive home, but the state argued Weeks had said something different in his deposition some time last year.

Ryan Ford

"Chris (Hoffman) was like, 'No, I'm not drinking anymore tonight. I've got to go home and have to drive, so I'm going to sober up, and that's what I do,'" a prosecutor asked.

On Tuesday, Kristi Ford, Ryan Ford's sister, told the jury her version of what led to her brother's death. They were both at a bonfire on private property off Old St. Augustine Road.

She testified that, at one point, three people were on top of her brother beating him and Hoffman was the only one she could identify.

"I told her she needed to go over to her brother and tell people to stop touching him, trying to wake him up, slapping him in the face, pouring beer on him -- not really slapping him violently hard, just trying to slap him, trying to wake him up," said Adrianna March, Kristi Ford's friend.

March said Ford didn't wake up.

Witnesses said it all started when Ford and a few people walked over to see a fight.

When that fight ended, Robert Clein, another person at the party, admitted he threw a punch at Ford after Ford poked him in the face.

Then, Clein said he believes Hoffman threw another punch and took him to the ground.

Clein said tensions between Ford and Hoffman at the beginning of the night may have led to Hoffman's involvement.

"He had said that Ryan Ford had approached him and grabbed his shirt and said, 'That's a nice shirt. I should rip it off you.' It was a Ford pickup shirt. A blue shirt with a Ford emblem on it," said Clein.

Starla Sleap, who said she went to the party that night with Hoffman's girlfriend, testified that she was on Hoffman's back trying to get him to stop beating Ford when Hoffman turned and punched her.

The defense countered that since multiple people hit Ford, there is no way the state can prove Hoffman threw the fatal punch.

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime scene analyst testified that Hoffman's hands were tested for DNA, and his left and right hand tested positive for DNA from himself and a second person, but not that of Ryan Ford.

After lunch Wednesday, prosecutors called a neurosurgeon as their final witness, then rested.

The doctor said Ford had brain swelling and other issues that came from a combination of blunt force trauma hits that led to his death. She said she didn't believe it was the initial hit that caused him to die, but the blow after blow that came after.

The defense questioned her, asking if she could separate the non-fatal blows from the fatal ones, and she said all she could say was that her patient died from a blunt force trauma injury, adding it seems that no one really knows exactly which hit led to Ford's death.

"What I can say is that there was clearly an altercation, there was clearly multiple people fighting, at least three in this particular interaction," she said. "The rest of it is all hearsay to me."

The neurosurgeon went on to say that she has never seen a single punch cause the degree of injury that Ford had. She said the kind of force that would cause the type of trauma he suffered in an isolated incident would come from something similar to a car accident.

The defense will have one more witness -- a doctor -- Thursday morning before closing arguments.