Former St. Johns County deputy accused of battery during traffic stop found not guilty

Former St. Johns County Sheriff's Office deputy Anthony DeLeo takes the stand in his own defense. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – After nearly three hours of deliberations Wednesday, a jury found a former St. Johns County deputy not guilty of aggravated battery in connection to the beating of a man during a 2019 traffic stop.

Lawyers for both sides laid out their closing arguments Wednesday morning in the case against Anthony DeLeo who was accused of using excessive force against a man who was pulled over for driving under the influence after a low-speed chase on Interstate 95.

Following the verdict, an elated DeLeo celebrated with his defense team and family.

“We take no pleasure in prosecuting a veteran Law Enforcement Officer for excessive use of force but based on the circumstances we believed it was the appropriate thing to do,” State Attorney R.J. Larizza wrote in a statement after the verdict. “The jury worked hard to reach a verdict in a difficult case and we respect and appreciate their efforts.”

Prosecutors argued that DeLeo went too far by striking Christopher Butler with his fist and a baton during the incident that was partially captured on video by a witness.

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“Five minutes and 50 seconds is the time it takes for Anthony DeLeo to deliver 22 baton strikes, four punches and two kicks to the face. Five minutes and 50 seconds. On the early morning of December 29th of 2019, Anthony DeLeo went too far,” said Assistant State Attorney Ashley Terwilleger.

But the defense said DeLeo was using his baton in a way that is allowed by Sheriff’s Office policies and he did not intentionally hurt Butler.

MORE | St. Johns County deputy who beat man during traffic stop tells jury his goal was compliance

“Remember the jury, we’re here today to find the truth. And what the evidence in this case shows is that this is a confusing and dynamic and a dangerous situation, all put into motion by the illegal and dangerous actions of Mr. Butler,” defense attorney Tim Pribisco said.

DeLeo was fired and charged with second-degree aggravated battery in March 2020 after videos of the January incident surfaced.

A witness recorded DeLeo hitting Butler with his baton 22 times, punching him four to five times and kicking him twice in the head and body while Butler offered little to no resistance.

DeLeo took the stand Tuesday and testified that he never intended to hurt the victim in this case. Repeatedly, DeLeo said his goal was compliance, not violence.

DeLeo said he slapped Butler on the forehead with an open hand in order to get control of his hands, but prosecutors pointed out that he said he used a closed fist to punch Butler in a report filed after the incident. From there, DeLeo said he kneed Butler in the chest, but he didn’t budge. That’s when he says Butler kicked his left knee.

DeLeo testified he had recently undergone knee replacement surgery after he was injured in a 2017 on-duty motorcycle crash, and Butler’s kick caused extreme pain.

The defense said that injury is why DeLeo decided not to go to the ground to try to handcuff Butler and instead used his baton, a decision the prosecution contends led to unnecessary use of force in order to gain compliance.

When asked by prosecutors why he had to use his baton to subdue butler, DeLeo said Butler’s injuries would’ve been worse had he used his fist.

A St. Johns County lieutenant testified Tuesday that DeLeo used his baton in a way that was consistent with the Sheriff’s Office policies but added the situation could have been handled differently.

If convicted, DeLeo would have faced up to 15 years in jail, but the jury could have also found DeLeo guilty of lesser charges.

Attorney John Phillips, who will be representing Butler in an upcoming civil case, issued a statement to News4Jax following the verdict.

“This is a disappointing result,” Phillips said. “The video of the incident proves otherwise. Until we as a society, and within law enforcement agencies, hold reckless law enforcement fully accountable, civil rights are in jeopardy.”

About the Authors:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013 and reports every weekday for The Morning Show.

Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.