Jury finds Coffee IV not guilty on murder, attempted murder charges

PHOTO BY NICK SAMUEL

Update:

In a dramatic turn, a six-person jury found Andrew Coffee IV not guilty on murder and attempted murder charges stemming from a fatal 2017 drug raid carried out by the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office. But, the jury did find Coffee guilty on a charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Coffee’s defense attorneys, Julia Graves and Adam Chrzan, said that the case was still a win for Coffee.

“I’m exceptionally happy with the jury’s verdict. They took a painstakingly long time to go through the evidence, go through the law, 30-page jury instructions and they applied the law properly,” Chrzan said outside the courtroom after the decision was made. “They came back with verdicts that were just.”

The decisions come on the fifth day of Coffee’s court trial and one day after Coffee took the stand to challenge the state’s narrative that he was responsible for his 21-year-old girlfriend’s death.

Coffee’s girlfriend, Alteria Woods, was shot 10 times after being caught in a crossfire between Coffee and deputies. Medical examiners later determined Woods died from bullets fired from law enforcement officers.

The jury found Coffee not guilty of second-degree felony murder, three counts of attempted first-degree murder on a law enforcement officer, and shooting a missile within a building.

Coffee smiled and breathed a sigh of relief as the jury ruling was read in the courtroom. Coffee had faced life in prison if he was convicted on the murder and attempted murder charges.

The jury ruled on the possession of firearm by a convicted felon charge separately from the other charges.

The sentencing for that charge is set for 1:15 p.m. Jan. 13, Circuit Court Judge Dan Vaughn said in the courtroom Friday afternoon. The maximum penalty for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon is 15 years, though Coffee could possibly face 30 years because of prior offenses, Chrzan said.

Chrzan and Graves said they plan to refile a Stand Your Ground appeal – which Vaughn had denied in June – after the sentencing for the charge.

Coffee has been held at the Indian River County Jail on $440,000 bond ever since he was arrested for the raid. Vaughn did not say whether Coffee’s bond would be revoked or lowered.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors said Coffee fired at deputies and knew they were law enforcement officers. Defense attorneys said Coffee shot at what he thought were intruders breaking his bedroom window during the overnight raid.

The raid happened at 5:30 a.m. March 19, 2017, at a residence in the 4500 block of 35th Avenue in Gifford. Coffee lived at the residence with his father, Coffee III, and his grandmother Vivian Scott.

Four months after the raid, prosecutors exonerated the officers who fired shots: Cpl. Patrick White, retired Indian River Shores Officer Richard ‘Rick’ Sarcinello and Sgt. Christopher Reeve. In the same move, prosecutors charged Coffee with Woods’ death and said he committed a felony he knew would cause harm to others.  

Indian River County Sheriff Eric Flowers said the jury’s verdict on the murder and attempted murder charges was “disappointing.”

“It’s disappointing that this jury did not see that the tragic death of Alteria Woods occurred as a direct result of the actions of Andrew Coffee IV. Our deputies were there as a result of drug complaints and sales and took fire from Coffee upon which they had no choice but to protect themselves and others,” Flowers said in an emailed statement. “Our hearts go out to the Woods family as they still suffer from the loss of their daughter, but we stand by our statement that she would still be here had Coffee simply complied with law enforcement.”

Earlier story:

A six-person jury continued deliberations Friday in the Andrew Coffee IV trial stemming from a 2017 drug raid in Gifford that left a 21-year-old woman dead. The overnight raid led to public outrage, differing stories from authorities, protests and raised questions of self-defense.

Coffee’s girlfriend, Alteria Woods, was shot 10 times while lying in bed after being caught in a crossfire between Coffee and deputies. She died on the bed, according to authorities.

Medical examiners determined the bullets that killed Woods – including one that tore through her chest and heart – came from deputies’ weapons.

Prosecutors said deputies announced themselves before Coffee fired at them. Defense attorneys said Coffee shot at what he thought were intruders breaking his bedroom window.

“It was dark. I was scared. I was in fear for my life,” Coffee said during his testimony on Thursday. “I was trying to protect myself and Alteria. I couldn’t save her. I can’t sleep thinking about it.”

Defense attorneys and prosecutors rested their cases Thursday. Coffee faces life in prison if convicted on the charges against him, including a second-degree murder count.

Prosecutors in 2017 charged Coffee with Woods’ death, adding to the state’s belief that he committed a felony and should have known his response would cause harm to others. The jury on Thursday re-listened to recordings of testimonies from officers involved in the raid.

On Friday, the jury re-listened to a testimony from Dr. Barry Garcia, a sheriff’s tactical medical officer who was on scene at the raid. Garcia took the stand Tuesday, was questioned by attorneys and said he “did not have a recollection” of deputies making a statement before breaking Coffee’s window.

The trial began Monday with testimonies from the three officers who authorities said broke the window to Coffee’s bedroom and exchanged gunfire with him. The officers – Cpl. Patrick White, retired Indian River Shores Officer Richard ‘Rick’ Sarcinello and Sgt. Christopher Reeve – said someone in the room initially fired at deputies, causing them to return fire. 

“I saw a round muzzle flash. That means it was coming right at me,” Sarcinello previously said on the stand. “I returned gunfire.”

The jury this week heard from Coffee, also known as ‘A.J.,’ who said he shot at what he thought were home intruders. Coffee said he heard a loud boom – which defense attorneys say were flash bangs detonated by deputies – and thought someone was shooting at him.

Prosecutors said deputies loudly said “sheriff’s office search warrant” several times during the raid. Defense attorneys said the flash bangs – which they said leaves a person briefly deafened, blind and disoriented – possibly prevented Coffee from hearing deputies’ announcements.

Coffee was also charged with three counts of attempted first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer by discharging a weapon, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and shooting or throwing a deadly missile after the incident.

Sarcinello, Reeve and White were exonerated from any criminal wrongdoing by the grand jury four months after the deadly raid. The case was investigated by the sheriff’s office.

Woods’ mother, Yolanda Woods, filed a federal lawsuit in January for misconduct against Sarcinello, Reeve and White. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Florida.

Coffee’s family has been present each day of the trial, hoping that Coffee will be acquitted on the charges against him.

“Two sides to a story”

The jury heard dramatic testimony from witnesses this week detailing two versions of the set of events surrounding the drug raid. The search warrant happened at 5:30 a.m. on March 19, 2017, at the residence in the 4500 block of 35th Avenue in Gifford.

Coffee lived at the small home with his grandmother, Vivian Scott, and his father Coffee III, the target of the raid, according to witness testimonies. 

Defense Attorney Adam Chrzan said the raid was an overreaction by deputies stemming from two undercover $40 crack cocaine purchases from Coffee III, who goes by the nickname “Cheesy.”

“It didn’t have to end this way,” Chrzan said of the morning raid that occurred while the sky was still dark. “(Coffee) made a split-second decision to protect himself and his girlfriend.”

Prosecutors said Coffee knew it was deputies – wearing helmets, bulletproof vests and green shirts – breaking into the residence. Assistant State Attorney Chris Taylor said Coffee knew he was firing at law enforcement. 

“He took aim and shot. He certainly intended to kill all three,” Taylor said. “He didn’t use justifiable defense. He consciously decided to shoot at law enforcement.”

What happened

At least 14 officers, including SWAT team members, were present during the search warrant, according to testimony from officers. Moments before the raid, Coffee III’s acquaintance, Ryan Hanna, said she was traveling in a vehicle that passed by his home and saw what appeared to be 10 undercover sheriff’s cars parked nearby, according to her testimony on Monday.

Hanna said she then called Coffee III.

“I called Cheesy and said ‘I think they’re coming in,” Hanna said on the stand Monday. “Then the phone went dead.” 

Taylor said Coffee III possibly warned his son about deputies coming to the home, but did not provide evidence to back the accusation. Coffee denied Taylor’s claim that his father warned him.

Deputies detained Coffee III at the main door while yelling “sheriff’s office search warrant” several times, according to witness testimonies from officers. Deputies said they then tossed a flash bang through doorway.

Prosecutors said deputies surrounded the home and loudly announced themselves several more times. The officers in court said even though Coffee III was in custody, they still were required to look inside the home, as part of the search warrant.  

Reeve used a break-and-rake tool to smash the window to a bedroom where the youngest Coffee was lying in bed with Woods. Deputies said they did not know if anyone was in the room before breaking the window. 

Sarcinello said he yelled “sheriff’s office search warrant.” Defense attorneys said Coffee and five other people in the home did not hear deputies announce themselves.  

Reeve then detonated a flash bang fixed to the end of the break-and-rake pole, according to his testimony on the stand on Monday. Coffee then exchanged gunfire with Reeves, Sarcinello and White. 

Bullets ripped through the residence, struck Woods and tore into the mattress where she was sleeping. The gunfire also pierced through the thin walls and went through the kitchen. 

Woods was struck in the chest, the right side of her head, her right arm and both of her legs, according to 19th District Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Patricia Aronica, who took the stand on Wednesday. Aronica said Woods’ chest wound was incapacitating.

“(It) was the most damaging,” Aronica said. 

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