ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Former St. Johns County deputy Anthony DeLeo told a jury Tuesday he did not intend to hurt a man he kicked and struck at least 20 times with a baton during a 2019 traffic stop.
“I was at the most using 75 percent of my ability. It was a one-handed swing. It was not a swing like a baseball bat with two hands. And my goal was, like I stated before, was not to injure Mr. Butler,” DeLeo testified.
DeLeo was the last witness called to the stand Tuesday evening during his trial for second-degree aggravated battery against Christopher Butler, a man who was pulled over and accused of driving under the influence after a low-speed chase on Interstate 95.
According to a review of the video by the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, Butler was hit with a baton 22 times, punched four to five times and kicked twice in the head and torso area after he refused to comply and put his hands behind his back during his arrest. The defense contends Butler ignored deputies’ verbal commands to surrender at least 70 times after he was pulled over for driving 15 miles per hour on I-95. He was also shocked by a Taser used by a Florida Highway Patrol trooper and refused to surrender, deputies said.
DeLeo said the use of force was designed to place Butler under arrest, but prosecutors questioned why DeLeo, a bodybuilder who was 5-foot-11 and about 290 pounds at the time of the incident, along with others had so much trouble getting Butler, who was 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds and at times not fighting back, into handcuffs.
DeLeo testified that Butler’s strength was “immeasurable” and other deputies testified that Butler was naked, sweaty and difficult to corral.
Prosecutors also focused on inconsistencies in DeLeo’s testimony when compared to the report he wrote in the hours after the seven-minute incident in the parking lot of a Winn-Dixie on County Road 210.
While on the stand, DeLeo said when he first approached Butler, he hit him with an open hand slap to the forehead in order to get his hands free from the steering wheel. But in his report filed the day after the incident, DeLeo said he delivered a single-handed closed fist strike to the nose area.
“The first time that you make a statement different from your report is when you’re under a criminal investigation, correct?” the prosecutor asked.
“If you want to state it that way,” DeLeo responded.
“And you testified that you don’t like to punch people in the face because of the potential damage by a guy your size. Correct?” the prosecutor follows up.
“Correct,” DeLeo responds.
Video also shows that DeLeo kicked Butler twice during the incident, but that was not noted in his report.
DeLeo said any errors in the report were not intentional.
Prosecutors also questioned DeLeo why there were moments where deputies appeared to be “standing around” and not actively trying to put Butler into handcuffs when he was not resisting arrest.
“You agree that there wasn’t an alternative plan,” the prosecutor said. “You stuck to the same cycle: tasing, baton strikes and commands and that wasn’t working. Correct?”
“What do you do? Do you abandon it altogether and walk away and say, okay, we’re gonna stop this, now you’re free to go?” DeLeo responded.
The prosecutor then pointed out that when another deputy arrives on the scene, he was able to quickly put Butler into handcuffs by going to the ground with him.
DeLeo said his injured left knee was kicked by Butler early in the struggle to place him under arrest, causing him immense pain. The prosecution implied that knee injury was part the reason DeLeo chose not to go to the ground in an attempt to handcuff Butler.
A St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant who investigated DeLeo also took the stand Tuesday morning.
St. Johns County Lt. Jeremy Russell testified that Butler was kicked by DeLeo while he was seated against a vehicle and covering his face.
Russell said the video also showed that Butler, who admitted Monday he was under the influence of multiple over-the-counter drugs, was not fighting back or making any aggressive moves towards officers.
“Is there any effort to secure [Butler] in handcuffs after Mr. DeLeo kicks him twice in the face?” one prosecutor asked.
“No,” Russell responded.
When interviewed by the defense, Russell said DeLeo used his baton in a way that was consistent with the Sheriff’s Office policies, which allows for the use of force in cases where there is noncompliance. But, Russell added, the interaction could have been handled differently by DeLeo.
The man who recorded the videos testified Tuesday that Butler was not complying with commands from deputies, but added, “he wasn’t doing anything. He wasn’t resisting.”
“He’s obviously on drugs, dude,” the man could be heard saying in the video.
The videos that were recorded by the witness were given to the family of Butler after the incident.
On Monday, the court heard directly from Butler and he shared exactly what he recalls from that night.
Butler is now serving time for his role in the December 2019 traffic stop involving DeLeo. That’s why Butler was clad in a prison jumpsuit when he took the stand on Monday.
Butler said he remembers deputies attempting to pull him out. From there, he said he remembered waking up in the hospital with injuries to his teeth, nose, shoulder and elbow. He showed the jury how he’s lost mobility in his right arm as a result of the incident.
During cross-examination, Butler admitted he took more than the recommended dose of cold medicine in order to get high before getting behind the wheel. The defense also grilled him on disobeying commands by the deputy.
Shortly before noon, the state rested its case and the defense began calling witnesses, starting with Joseph McGinnis who was one of two other deputies involved who were placed on paid administrative leave after the video surfaced. Those deputies did not face criminal charges, but their actions were investigated by the Sheriff’s Office. DeLeo was fired and charged with battery in March of 2020.
McGinnis said the situation was “hectic” and “stressful.”
“At the time I did everything I thought I could,” he testified. “I mean, it’s easy to look back at it now, and look at the video and say, I could have done this, or I should have done that, but in the moment when we were there, I did everything that I thought I needed to be doing to prevent this from escalating to a totally different situation.”
Patrick Ponticello was also involved in the incident and took the stand Tuesday afternoon. He received a written reprimand as a result of an internal investigation.
Ponticello, who deployed his Taser on Butler, said he was only there for the end of the incident but saw nothing improper being done by anyone involved.
If convicted, DeLeo faces up to 15 years in jail.
Closing arguments from both sides are expected on Wednesday followed by jury deliberations.