CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – A jury on Thursday returned a verdict of not guilty on all seven counts in the trial of former Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels after prosecutors rested their case, and in a surprise move, Daniels’ defense team also rested -- without calling any witnesses.
Daniels opted not to take the stand in his own defense.
Daniels was charged with tampering with evidence, attempted destruction of evidence and five counts of lying to law enforcement. He acknowledged in court earlier this month that if he was convicted of the felonies, he could have been sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
The tampering with evidence charge related to deleting a Google account and cellphone data while knowing he was under investigation, according to court documents. The alleged offenses took place between May 6, 2019, and June 4, 2019.
Daniels was accused of destroying the evidence and lying to investigators to cover up his long-term affair with a former corrections officer.
After calling a few more witnesses Thursday, the state rested its case against the former sheriff, and then Daniels’ defense team asked the judge to acquit their client of all charges, arguing Daniels didn’t intend to cover up any evidence and disputing that he lied to state law enforcement personnel called in to investigate Daniels’ affair. That motion was denied.
Uncut: Video below from courtroom as the verdict was read
Daniels maintained his innocence to charges of evidence tampering and lying to law enforcement.
State investigators began looking into Daniels in 2019 after prosecutors say he told one of his deputies to arrest his mistress for stalking him.
But the woman said what actually happened was that she and Daniels were planning on meeting up — and then his wife showed up. The suggestion was that maybe he had her arrested to avoid a confrontation.
“The evidence is shown that the defendant used his position for personal gain,” said prosecutor Rich Buxman in court.
A few hours after Smith was arrested, Daniels deleted his Gmail account and later asked the sheriff’s office’s IT department to wipe his official phone, but IT ended up putting it in a safe instead. Prosecutors say that showed Daniels was tampering with evidence.
But Daniels’ defense attorney Matt Kachergus says Daniels wasn’t trying to hide evidence from law enforcement — he was trying to hide the details of his affair from his wife.
Prosecutors say Daniels lied to state law enforcement several times throughout the investigation into him.
But the defense maintained that Daniels didn’t lie — and the trial was a “witch hunt.”
We spoke with Kachergus after the not guilty verdict.
“In terms of Mr. Daniels’ arrest five days before an election was troubling, and I’m glad the jury saw through what this was about and arrived at the verdict they did. I’m glad my client is able to go home tonight and put this behind him and start the next chapter of his life,” Kachergus said.
Daniels said, “I feel good.” And he said he planned to hold a news conference at a later time.
Explicit text messages read in court
On Wednesday, the jury heard testimony detailing Daniels’ relationship with his now-former mistress, Cierra Smith, through explicit text messages that were read aloud in court.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Investigator Keith Riddick read text messages between Smith and Daniels -- many of them explicit -- that prosecutors said proved their position that despite Daniels’ claims that he had ended his relationship with Smith before a meeting between them on May 6, 2019 -- the relationship was actually still ongoing, as Smith has asserted.
Daniels claimed that Smith was stalking him that day and had her arrested, while she testified that the meeting between them that day was planned -- and that Daniels’ wife showed up with him.
Deputies ultimately declined to put Smith in jail, and hours after the incident, Daniels deleted his Gmail account.
Riddick also read a text message exchanged between Smith and Daniels’ wife.
Riddick: “(Daniels wife wrote:) ‘Northside **** of the day. Don’t call this number again. Period. This is my phone now. Period. He don’t want your crazy ***. Period. By boo. Period.’ Miss Smith responded, ‘You just worry about standing by your husband’s side when News4JAX airs this story. Period. Good night, grandma.’ And there’s an image of Mr. Daniels and Miss Smith attached to the text.”
An IT worker with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office also testified in court Wednesday morning. He shared details about how he was given an order by then-Sheriff Daniels to wipe an old cellphone he had.
The IT worker said he suspected it was to remove information to help conceal the affair.
Later on, that IT worker’s supervisor testified, saying he was uncomfortable with the order and had the phone placed in a safe in case it became evidence in the investigation.
Then a recording of Daniels’ interview with FDLE was played for the jury. Daniels describes the incident where Smith was following him that led to him accusing his ex-mistress of stalking.
“A million things are going through my head. And I’m like how is this ending? I start thinking Clay County sheriff has to kill a young female in her vehicle (inaudible). It’s not a good look for myself or the county. Clay County sheriff is killed by a (inaudible). It’s not a good look either,” he can be heard saying.
In the audio, the FDLE also pressed Daniels on the tens of thousands of dollars he gave to Smith over the years, including one payment of around $4,300 for plastic surgery, and he said he was able to get away with it because he managed the family’s finances and they had extra money.
“You say you give person, give them a little bit of rope, they’ll turn themselves into a cowboy, and that’s just what I did,” Daniels can be heard saying.
Opening statements made, testimony begins in trial
Smith testified for about two hours Tuesday with attorneys asking about the meeting between her and Daniels on May 6, 2019.
She said the meeting was planned in advance, but Daniels says she was stalking him because he had ended their six-year relationship a week earlier.
Daniels’ wife was also at the meeting.
“So at that time I noticed she was going to block me in, I did make contact with Darryl, and I saw him hold up his radio in the window. and I got scared,” Smith said on the stand. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Clay County Deputy Chris Ruby also testified that Daniels was heard calling in a suspicious vehicle on the police radio -- Smith’s vehicle.
“I told the sheriff we have options. I can talk to Cierra and tell her to stay away from you, and I can make an arrest for stalking,” Ruby said during testimony Tuesday. “He said he wanted her arrested.”
Mike Williams, who was sheriff of Jacksonville at the time of the affair, remained in contact with Daniels after he became Clay County’s sheriff.
When he took the stand on Tuesday, Williams was asked about a conversation he had with Daniels about Smith.
Williams: “So he initially said, ‘Hey, that girl that works for you has been following me around. She’s out here now.’ So, I didn’t know who he was referring to at the time. I finally figured that piece out and realized there was some kind of incident involving him and her, his wife was present, and I remember asking him, ‘Where are you at? Do you have anybody there with you?’ He said, yeah, his people were here and he was good. His main question was, ‘Hey, she’s going to go to jail. I don’t think it would look good putting her in my jail. Can we put her in the Duval County jail?’”
Attorney: “And when he made that request of you, were you able to meet his request?”
Williams: “No. I told him, basically if she broke the law in Clay County she needs to go to jail in Clay County.”
Opening statements Tuesday told two very different stories.
The state said Daniels knowingly broke the law and tried to cover everything up, but the defense said the investigation was a “witch hunt,” and said that when investigators didn’t find what they were looking for they made up criminal charges.
The jury was selected Monday from a pool of 200 Clay County residents. The six jurors are made up of four women and two men. One man and one woman were picked as the two alternates.
State Attorney Melissa Nelson recused her office because of a conflict of interest, so the Fifth Circuit State Attorney’s Office from Ocala is handling the case after being appointed as an independent prosecutor by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The trial will be held in Clay County but will be presided over by St. Johns County Judge R. Lee Smith, as all Clay County judges also recused themselves from the case.
Sources told News4JAX that Daniels rejected a plea offer, but during the final pre-trial hearing Sept. 1, the prosecutor said there was no offer from the state, which means whatever plea negotiations were taking place didn’t go anywhere.