BRISTOL, Fla. (AP) — A Panhandle jury took roughly an hour on Thursday to declare suspended Liberty County Sheriff Nick Finch not guilty of misconduct charges stemming from his decision to intervene in a gun arrest.
Finch, who fought back tears as he hugged his wife and daughter following the verdict, said right after the trial he called Gov. Rick Scott and asked him to reinstate him to his job.
"This just proves Liberty County is a good place to live and raise your children," Finch said. "There are good people here."
Finch was charged in June with official misconduct, a felony, as well as falsifying public records following an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. If found guilty, he could have been sentenced up to five years in prison.
Scott suspended Finch following the arrest. The governor's office did not immediately respond to questions about when Scott would return Finch to office.
State Attorney Willie Meggs — who said this is the first time he had prosecuted a sheriff during his nearly 30 years in office — said he was disappointed with the outcome.
"We thought we established the case, the verdict should have been guilty on both counts," Meggs said. "It wasn't, so we go on to the next case. We don't win all of our cases. Our job is try them."
Prosecutors insisted that Finch had destroyed and altered official records related to the March arrest of Floyd Eugene Parrish, who was taken into custody following a traffic stop in an isolated rural area where he was discovered carrying a .25 caliber pistol in his pocket.
Finch, who testified on his own behalf during the three-day trial, said he let go Parrish go because he believed that Second Amendment gun rights trumped state gun laws.
Finch also insisted that it made little sense to charge Parrish since so many people in the county routinely carry guns in their cars and trucks.
Assistant State Attorney Jack Campbell contended that Finch was lying about his reasons for letting Parrish go. He pointed out that other Liberty County sheriff's office officials were never told about a policy to not prosecute gun crimes.
"The Second Amendment doesn't have anything to do with this case," Campbell told jurors during his closing statement. "It's about the truth."
When asked after the trial if county residents could now carry concealed weapons without a permit, Finch at first said "of course you can." But then he stopped and said "we will get into that at a later time."
Finch's case had divided this small rural county of 8,000 people located west of Tallahassee. Finch was first elected sheriff less than a year ago and he defeated the incumbent sheriff by less than 200 votes.
News of the arrest brought attention among conservative media outlets and gun rights activists who have criticized prosecutors and Scott for suspending Finch from office.
The state built its case around that fact that the original document used to charge Parrish was missing and that someone had whited out logs used at the Liberty County jail. A jail employee testified that she gave Finch the file that contained information about the case.
Campbell argued the jail employee had no reason to lie about what happened last March. He alleged, however, that Finch did have a reason to lie, saying he wanted to make sure that no one knew he had released Parrish. Campbell contended Finch was doing a favor for the Parrish family, which had supported him politically.
Finch said after the trial that his defense attorneys were not sure if he should testify. But he said he told them "this jury wants to hear me say 'I did not do this.'"
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