Families react to verdict in bonfire beating death

By Heather Leigh, Mobile journalist, hleigh@wjxt.com
Published On: Aug 21 2014 09:46:57 PM EDT
Updated On: Aug 21 2014 11:53:29 PM EDT

VIDEO: After four hours of deliberation the jury in the Christopher Hoffman trial found him guilty of felony battery in the beating death of Ryan Ford.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

On Thursday, a six-member jury found 26-year-old Christopher Hoffman guilty of felony battery in the beating death of 19-year-old Ryan Ford at a bonfire party in January of last year.

Hoffman had been charged with second-degree murder in the case, but the jury returned a verdict with the lesser charge after four hours of deliberations.

Family members for both Hoffman and Ford were visibly upset leaving the courtroom after the verdict was announced.

“I don't think we really want to talk until sentencing,” said Wayne Ford, Ryan Ford's father. “We're all a little upset right now. We got more than what the original offer was, but we're going to wait.”

A family advocate for the Fords said a few words, and Hoffman's lawyer and great uncle also spoke, saying the last three days of emotional testimony had been very tough on everyone.

“I think that the judge was a good judge, the attorneys were good,” said Robert Hayes, Hoffman's great uncle. “I can't say I'm happy with the verdict, but again it could have been a lot worse.”

“Ultimately we wanted Chris to walk out,” said Hoffman's defense attorney James Hill. “Ultimately, we told them the whole time it was never a murder as far as Chris Hoffman was considered.”

That's how the defense closed, telling the jury there were too many unanswered questions and reasonable doubt. The prosecution asked the jury not to decide whether Hoffman is a bad person but instead, if his actions led to Ford's death.

A family advocate for the Fords said the family is not ready to speak and that the last few days have been extremely difficult.

“I mean, it's not as difficult as the day that Ryan was killed, but it's very hard to relive that stuff,” Ryan Backmann said. “The family appreciates y'all just giving them a little time.”

Backmann expressed the family's gratitude toward State Attorney Angela Corey and her office and Assistant State Attorney Brian Brady for their efforts.

Jody Cowart, who dates Ryan Ford's mother and knew Ryan for 14 years, echoed that praise of Brady and the other prosecutors.

"It's a bittersweet victory because we were really hoping for (at least) a manslaughter charge," Cowart said. "We know that it was a very difficult case."

Cowart said the family isn't happy with the verdict, but he holds out hope Hoffman could still face jail time on the felony conviction.

"But no amount of time, no matter how many years that he spends in prison, is ever going to bring Ryan back," Cowart said. "That's the pain that we have to live with on a daily basis."

Hoffman's lawyer also responded to the verdict.

“I'm hoping that the Ford family has received some closure,” Hill said. “I know it's difficult for everyone involved and everyone is sympathetic to that situation, but at the end of the day I think it was a more appropriate outcome than what was brought before the court.”

News4Jax legal analyst Rhonda Peoples-Waters, who was not involved in the case, said with the felony battery verdict, Hoffman could face 0-5 years in prison. The judge can go anywhere within that range, she said.

"The jurors must have had an issue as to whether or not this defendant, out of the several other persons that struck the victim, whether this defendant was the one that actually caused his death," Peoples-Waters said.

Hoffman is being held in the Duval County jail without bond. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for Sept. 24.