Jury: Hoffman guilty of felony battery in bonfire beating death

Defense argued state couldn't prove who threw fatal punch

By Elizabeth Campbell - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Christopher Hoffman is currently behind bars without bond after a jury found him guilty of felony battery Thursday evening in the beating death of a 19-year-old last year.

After almost four hours of deliberations, the six-member jury came back with the verdict Thursday, finding Hoffman guilty of the lesser charge, even though he was on trial for second-degree murder.

RELATED: Families react to verdict

The jury heard closing arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys Thursday before beginning deliberations.

In the third and final day of court, the prosecution tried to convince the jury that the 26-year-old was responsible for the beating death of Ryan Ford at a bonfire party on private property in Mandarin in January 2013. Hoffman was accused of fatally punching Ford.

The state told the jury members that they might feel bad that there were others involved in Ford's death who never came forward -- but told them the trial was for Hoffman, not anyone else involved.

The defense closed by telling the jury there were way too many unanswered questions -- that the state wasn't able to clearly portray who, when, how or why.

Both families for Hoffman and Ford attended all three days of trial and were understandably emotional when leaving the courthouse after the verdict was read.

Before the deliberations, Judge Charles Arnold instructed the jury that although Hoffman was charged with second-degree murder, he could also be found guilty of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, attempted second-degree murder, felony battery, misdemeanor or found not guilty of any crime.

After Hoffman was again given the opportunity to testify by the judge, the prosecutor summed up his case.

"He participated. He didn't stand back and yell, 'Fight, fight, fight.' He punched him in the face over and over and over," Assistant State Attorney Brian Brady said. "He didn't throw a punch and walk away, he continued the attack."

Brady wrapped up by saying the jury's responsibility was not to decide if Hoffman is a bad person, but to determine if he was responsible for the events that led to Ford's death.

Hoffman's attorney, James Hill, rebutted a statement from the state that they assumed the defense would claim it was dark that night and hard for people to tell each other apart. He responded by saying he doesn't have to handle that because the witnesses already did.

"He's not telling the jury that it was dark that night but every witness said it was dark that night," Hill said. "Bottom line is there are questions that have not been answered."

The defense said the state wasn't able to prove who, where, how or why, when it came to Ford's death. When reasonable doubt was brought up, he said what is reasonable is someone else could have caused the teenager's death, adding that Ford's DNA was not on Hoffman's hands and that several people were involved in several fights that tragic night.

"What is reasonable is someone else could have caused his death," Hill said.

On Wednesday, the defense 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 (pictured) until that night, and they all said they never saw Hoffman in a fight with Ford.

The defense argued that it was extremely difficult to see that night, so no one really knew 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.

"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.

Hoffman is being held in the Duval County jail without bond. The sentencing guidelines are left up to the judge and the sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 24.

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