NAPLES — A Collier Circuit jury deliberated about 1 1/2 hours Wednesday before rejecting the top charge and finding award-winning Swamp Buggy racer Amy Chesser guilty of felony battery.
Chesser, 26, of Bonita Springs, began trembling and crying as more than a dozen supporters, including friends and family, sat and looked at each other in shock, some dabbing away tears. Among them was her boyfriend, who sobbed quietly. Chesser’s 70-year-old father, Leonard, had left before the verdict.
It took the five-woman, one-man jury nearly 1 1/2 hours to reach its verdict after considering the testimony, phone records and injuries to Eliza Masco, 39, of Naples, whose ex-husband Chesser was dating and precipitated the fight about 10 p.m. on Aug. 15, 2007, outside Masco’s gated community, Key Royal Villas.
Jurors in the 2 1/2-day trial rejected the top charge, aggravated battery, never considering the other lesser-and-included offense, battery. Jurors did not know the penalties the charges carry.
Chesser faces up to five years in prison on the third-degree felony she was convicted of, but that’s not likely because she has no record. When jurors rejected the top charge, it meant they found Chesser didn't intentionally or knowingly cause great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement.
Chesser, who wore a cardigan and flower-print skirt, stood as Collier Circuit Judge Elizabeth Krier adjudicated her guilty. Chesser trembled and took deep breaths as she quietly sobbed. Across the courtroom, Masco’s mother, Jill Noss, sat with her ex-husband, Masco’s father, Fred, as victim advocate Betty Ardaya of the State Attorney’s Office, held Noss’ hand.
“Amy Lynn Chesser, you’ve been found guilty by a jury of the charge of felony battery,” Krier told her. “... The court does now find you guilty of that offense. You’re hereby remanded to the sheriff until sentencing.”
The judge set sentencing for June 22 and ordered a pre-sentencing investigation from the state Department of Corrections, which will interview Chesser, review her lack of a criminal record and recommend a sentence.
Chesser, who’d been free on bond since her arrest on Sept., 17, 2007, trembled and cried silently as a deputy rolled her fingers on the ink pad to make her fingerprint card. She turned to her friends and family, mouthing, “I love you.”
As she was led out, they all said, “Stay strong, Amy. Stay strong. We love you.”
Her aunt declined comment and they quickly left with defense attorney Donald Day, who declined comment until sentencing.
“I’m satisfied with it,” Masco’s father, Fred Masco, said of the verdict, while Noss said: “I hope Amy gets some help. She needs help.”
Masco suffered a fractured right eye socket, a broken nose, a concussion, a detached retina, broken teeth, cuts, bruises, and neurological damage. She testified she hasn’t been able to work — she’d done dermabrasions — and can’t drive due to blurred vision.
“The jurors did their job,” said Assistant State Attorney Mara Marzano, who prosecuted the case with Assistant State Attorney Deb Cunningham.
The top charge, a second-degree felony, is punishable by up to 15 years in a state prison, while the lowest, battery, a misdemeanor, carries a maximum of a year in county jail.
The State Attorney’s Office will tally the points for Chesser’s charge and others for injuries and give the judge a sentencing scoresheet. The judge has the final say and must determine the seriousness of the injuries to tally all points to reach a sentence.
Chesser could face no incarceration, probation, if the judge considers the lasting injuries to Masco “slight,” which isn’t likely. If she determines they’re moderate, Chesser would be sentenced to 19 1/2 months in prison, or three years if the judge considers the injuries severe. The judge will review the scoresheet, and hear attorneys’ arguments and, possibly, from Masco and Chesser, before imposing a sentence.
Jurors could not be reached for comment, but one blogged on naplesnews.com. She wouldn’t specify how they reached their verdict, but had called it “tragic” that Chesser’s and Masco’s lives were changed on Aug. 15, 2007, in a fight that involved their boyfriends at the time.
She said everyone involved was partially to blame, calling Chesser and Masco victims and perpetrators.
Chesser is known as the first woman to win Big Feature in the Swamp Buggy Race’s 59-year history, a feat she accomplished again this year, earning her the Queen of the Swamp title. She comes from a family of award-winning racers, and the man at the center of the dispute between her and Masco, Brian Langford — Masco’s ex-husband and Chesser’s then-boyfriend — is a Big Feature winner from a racing family.
Day built his case by cross-examining witnesses, presenting his witnesses and pointing out inconsistencies. He also questioned why the investigator didn’t subpoena phone records and immediately interview those involved.
During Marzano’s summation Wednesday, she told jurors the case wasn’t about the text messages Masco repeatedly sent her ex-husband, many of which called Chesser derogatory names. It was about a crime to Masco, aggravated battery. The text messages, she contended, were Masco’s way of communicating with Langford about child custody issues.
She detailed the injuries, holding up graphic, enlarged photos of Masco’s facial injuries and detailing testimony by the doctor, reminding jurors that Masco suffered more permanent effects, an implant to support her eye and vision problems. She urged jurors not to be sympathetic to Masco or Chesser.
“Think about what Amy Chesser told you. This resulted from a scratching, kicking and pulling match,” Marzano said, mocking Chesser’s account and holding up the photo of Masco’s black eyes. “... There’s nothing that’s evidence of that.”
She went through each witness, contending the injuries more closely match Masco’s account.
“She told you that Ms. Chesser was on top of her, straddling her on the ground,” Marzano said, adding that she was hit on the eyes, nose, jaws, and the back of her head and showing jurors the photos to prove they matched Masco’s account.
Phone records match Masco’s version, she said referring to calls that led up to the beating, which followed a dispute between her then-boyfriend, Robbie Daffin Jr. Daffin and Langford over Masco’s texts. The prosecutor blamed Langford for instigating the nastiness between the women.
Just because there are conflicts in testimony, it doesn’t mean a not-guilty verdict, she said, urging jurors to find Chesser guilty.
In his closing argument, Day told jurors the only thing separating Masco from Chesser is photos. “Let’s say there was just a photo of Ms. Chesser,” Day said as Marzano jumped up and objected, prompting a sidebar with the judge.
Seconds later, Day continued: “And the photo of Ms. Chesser showed her bruise and that photograph went to the police department. ... And this case proceeded with Ms. Masco sitting with me at the defense table.”
“Here’s what the prosecution would be saying about this case: There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence to show Ms. Masco attacked Ms. Chesser,” Day argued in his “hypothetical prosecution.”
He described the motive, that witnesses described Masco as a jealous woman who drove to her gate to confront Chesser. He used the witnesses’ details to show the victim could just as easily have been Chesser if she’d had photos and called 911.
“... Do you really believe sympathy is not an issue?” Day asked, contending that’s what Marzano was seeking when she showed jurors the large, graphic photos.
He urged them to look at the facts, the uncontroverted scientific evidence provided by the doctor, who called Masco’s injuries rare. Day pointed out he’d testified they were more likely caused by blunt-force trauma — and that matched Chesser’s account of Masco rushing toward her, barefoot, pushing her chest, causing her to fall as Masco hit something hard, possibly the truck’s bumper, as she fell on her face.
“The state said conflicts are not a Not-Guilty,” Day said, contending that’s wrong. “Her honor is going to tell you if there are any conflicts in the evidence, that’s reasonable doubt.
Focusing on the inconsistencies, he urged jurors to find Chesser not guilty, saying the evidence doesn’t support the charge. But in her rebuttal, Marzano argued away those inconsistencies, saying it wasn’t a hypothetical case. “We all must be held accountable for our actions,” she concluded. “That is justice. That is following the law.”