C.J. Nelson, the 40-year-old Palm Coast father of eight previously accused of child abuse for assaulting a 16-year-old girl outside Epic Theater two years ago, was sentenced today to a month at the Flagler County jail and two years’ probation.
Nelson’s attorney considers the sentence a victory compared to the prison time his client would have faced had he accepted a plea, or had a jury returned a harsher verdict than it did when it convicted him on two misdemeanor charges in March.
“Any time I’m representing my client I want them to get their best outcome and of course the best outcome would have been not guilty,” Josh Davis, Nelson’s attorney, said after the sentencing hearing before Circuit Judge Dennis Craig this morning. “But with that video this was pretty much as good as it was going to get. I was happy, I thought the judge’s sentence was extremely fair, extremely just, he followed what the jury said.”
The incident took place in October 2016 outside the theater in Palm Coast’s Town Center. Nelson and members of his family had gone to the theater for a movie, as had the then-16-year-old victim and members of her family. The 16 year old and one of Nelson’s daughters had been in a fight at Buddy Taylor Middle School earlier. That triggered a verbal argument outside the theater between the siblings of the two families, which Nelson then took part in, up to shoving or punching the 16 year old. The incident was caught on a jumpy, blurry video.
Nelson was charged with felony child abuse and a misdemeanor battery charge. The prosecution offered him a plea, but he would have had to serve 18 months in prison. He has two jobs and a family of 10 depending on him. He turned it down. Davis argued a stand-your-ground motion, claiming Nelson had acted in self-defense against the girl. The hearing went badly for Davis and Nelson, but proved to be a useful rehearsal for what not to do at trial and what witnesses not to bring up. The judge denied the motion, pushing the case to trial in March.
As he had during the stand-your-ground motion, nelson took the stand at trial, but spoke less abrasively while maintaining a self-certain poise.
Had the jury found Nelson guilty of felony child abuse, he could have faced up to five years in prison, given his prior record: he’d been convicted on drug charges 10 years ago. The jury found him guilty on two counts of misdemeanor battery instead, thus eliminating the risk of prison. The only mystery at today’s sentencing was how much local jail time the judge was going to give him. The two convictions still exposed Nelson to a maximum of two years in jail. That’s what the victim’s mother asked for when she took the stand today, the only witness to do so, as she went on to describe the way her daughter has been suffering from anxiety attacks and describing the family’s circumstances since her husband was shot nine years ago.
The prosecution, represented by Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis, asked for “substantial” jail time, without putting a more specific length of time on it.
“The only thing I’m asking is he not lose his job and not lose his family,” Davis told the judge, “because that’s the only reason he did not accept the plea. He did not accept the plea because he didn’t want his family to be out on the street.” He later added: “C.J. wasn’t really worried about himself, he wasn’t worried about being incarcerated, he just didn’t want his family to end up on the street.”
Craig said the family’s circumstances such as the father being a shooting victim could not play into the sentence. But he was aware of the risk that a lengthy jail sentence would result in Nelson losing his jobs and his family losing their home in Palm Coast’s P Section. Craig said the way Nelson treated the girl was “unacceptable,” but imposed the 30-day sentence, which Nelson may serve on 10 successive weekends, plus two years’ probation—a year for each count, to be served consecutively. Nelson will also have to attend anger-management classes.
After the girl’s mother left the witness stand she brought up the matter of restitution, roughly $5,000, but documentation of medical bills was never presented to Davis, and whether the restitution matter goes forward is unclear. For now, Nelson and his attorney accepted the judge’s sentence as “extremely cool,” in Davis’s words.
“C.J. should have broken the thing up and been an adult but he didn’t and for that decision he’s going to do a month in jail,” Davis said. “People may think it’s not enough time, but you go do it. You go do 30 days. Tell me what you think. I mean, I get a visitor’s pass every time I go in there and I can’t wait to get out of that place.”