C.J. Nelson will not go to prison. A jury of three women and three men found him guilty of two counts of battery this afternoon, which are misdemeanors, choosing not to find him guilty of felony child abuse for punching a 16-year-old girl outside of Epic Theaters in Palm Coast a year and a half ago.
For Nelson, 39, a P-Section resident, the father of five girls and three boys and the family’s only breadwinner, it was a victory—as attested by his enormous smiles after the verdict, the first he’s displayed in several court appearances—even though he may still face county jail time: sentencing is set for April 24.
“We didn’t win by any stretch of the imagination,” Josh Davis, Nelson’s attorney, said outside the courthouse after the verdict this afternoon. “We just didn’t get killed.” Davis shooed Nelson away from a reporter: he didn’t want him speaking to the press just yet. Not before the sentencing hearing is done, anyway: Davis knows his client, who could get himself in trouble by saying too much, or seeming too triumphant, as he nearly did on his walk out of the courthouse and to his car with his family today.
Nelson and Davis had plenty of reasons for relief. The verdict today was more generous than they’d been led to expect, though in Davis’s view, they had no choice but to go to trial: the state had offered a plea of 18 months in prison followed by probation. Had Nelson gone along, he’d have lost his job and his family, Davis said, would have been “on the street.” It’s not clear how society would have been served by that, but juries don’t reach verdicts based on a family’s socioeconomic conditions. At least they’re not supposed to. In this case they knew very little about Nelson’s family, though he’d slipped in that he was a father of eight.
Luckily for him, the jury also had no idea about his previous performance on the stand.
It had gone disastrously for Nelson when he and his attorney argued to the court last month that Nelson had punched the 16-year-old girl in the mouth out of self-defense. Nelson was attempting to have his felony child-abuse case dismissed in a stand-your-ground motion.
C.J. Nelson’s Punch at Epic (He’s in Gray)
But he came across as brash, unrepentant, still contemptuous for the victim and not one bit regretful over the way a schoolhouse fight that had resulted in the suspension of his child (and the girl the child had been in a fight with) had spilled over onto the plaza in front of the movie theater that Friday night. For a man who boasted of his constant interactions with children, also as a coach, the performance was startling for the callouses around his memory of the fight. The many witnesses his attorney, Josh Davis, put on, also didn’t help, contradicting themselves, each other and the record, including a video a few seconds long that showed Nelson in a fighting stance, punching the girl and knocking her to the ground, then walking away and yelling something to the effect that he didn’t care about going to jail: “It’s my second home,” a witness from the opposing family claimed hearing him say.
Circuit Judge Dennis Craig denied the stand-your-ground motion.
The next step was trial, this time before a jury of six—and an all-white jury at that. The scene this morning wasn’t unusual for a Flagler courtroom: six white jurors (who may have included a Latino), white attorneys, a white judge, a black defendant and all-black audience members (both families involved are black).
If Nelson was to have any chance to avoid a conviction on a felony child abuse charge, exposing him to up to five years in prison because of four prior felony convictions (on drug charges, years ago), he and his attorney would have to have a make-over from the way he and other witnesses came across during the stand-your-ground hearing.
Today, they did. Luckily for Davis, he could use the stand-your-ground hearing the way coaches use games or scrimmages as training videos. Davis limited the number of witnesses to four, including Nelson. When Nelson took the stand, the chips on his shoulders still glinted through his answers but he was more controlled, coming across as more upset, perhaps at himself (the jury couldn’t quite tell: it officially had no knowledge of the stand-your-ground hearing), than still fighting the battle of that evening of October 21, 2016, when he punched the girl and “fled,” in the words of the words of Assistant State Attorney Mark Lewis, back to his house. Davis effectively played up the fact that the video clip was only a few seconds long and did not show the many minutes that had led up to the confrontation, when Nelson may have been provoked.
There were no glaring contradictions from the defense’s witnesses, and one key contradiction from a witness the defense tried to impeach—the girl who caught the video clip on her phone, and who had no connecting to either warring families—may have undermined the state’s case the most: the girl in her deposition, before trial, had said that she had heard the word “knife” being yelled out: a yell Nelson has claimed repeatedly hearing, and reacting against, when he feared that the 16-year-old or her sister would come at him with a knife.
But at trial, the girl who filmed the clip said she did not remember saying anything about a knife. When the attorney showed her her own words, she acknowledged seeing the words on the page, but still said she did not remember mention of a knife. Whether that did not help her credibility or not, it may have sowed enough doubt in the jury’s mind about the state’s claim that there was no talk of knife, no yell about a knife, just because it was not heard on the brief clip.
Lewis, the prosecutor, did his best to portray a Nelson on the offense, a Nelson looking for a fight, himself appearing out of nowhere in the video to confront the younger girls rather than the other way around. He repeatedly asked Nelson where he was when he didn’t appear in various frames in the video, but Nelson, in this case, stood his ground before the jury’s eyes: he did not remember. He asked him why Nelson did not call the cops if he feared a knife was around. He didn’t have his phone. Why didn’t he call when he got home? The phone was dead. It didn’t all seem so credible, but when Davis asked Nelson: “Is it fair to say you had no clue what was going on and somebody jumped in your face?” And Nelson said a simple “Yes,” that seemed to register with the jury.
Lewis tried again, by then just dueling with Davis, who’s a lawyer’s equivalent of a gloveless street brawler.
“So you being a 39-year-old man, you’re scared of a 16 year old kid?” Lewis asked Nelson. “That’s what you want this jury to believe?”
“Yes,” Nelson said, showing studied restraint.
Davis got up again. “Did you know she was 16?” he asked Nelson.
Davis had also been effective at rebuffing Lewis’s attempts to focus all attention on the video.
“She said she was going to cut me,” Nelson had said on the stand, referring to the victim.
“Did you hear that in the video?” Davis asked.
“Are you telling me that it’s possible something happened that is not on that video?”
If reasonable doubt were etched on a canvass for the jury, Davis was providing the numbers, Nelson the colors.
The jury went in to deliberate at 2:32 p.m. after a rather swift half day of trial. It had a verdict at 3:11 p.m.: 39 minutes.
“Regardless of what happens, everybody is calm, cool and collected, OK?” Lewis told the victim and her family, who sat on their side of the courtroom with the victim’s advocate, just before the jury came out. Later, a couple of bailiffs kept close tabs on both families as they made their way out of the courthouse, just to be sure that an Epic scene did not occur again.
Outside, Davis provided a different sort of closing argument. He saw the verdict as a victory (“absolutely”) but he wasn’t projecting triumphalism. “We’re very thrilled with that. You know, the whole time I didn’t see it as child abuse. I saw it as an unfortunate situation. Probably both parties contributed to it. There ended up being punches thrown, but I don’t think he honestly intended to hit a kid. I just don’t. He never did.” He termed the verdict “fair.”
“I don’t think anybody in the entire situation had clean hands,” Davis said.