TAMPA — George Zachary Chronister may have feared embarrassment when he used a knife to slash and stab another man during a 2017 brawl.
But he wasn’t in fear for his life and well-being, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Nash denied a claim from Chronister that he should be immune from prosecution under Florida’s stand your ground law. Chronister, 24, is the son of Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister.
"The defendant’s use of force was not justified," Nash said.
Chronister, 24, who goes by "Zack," had argued that he feared death or great bodily harm when he used a knife to attack Phillip Manzi.
The pair were on opposite sides of a confrontation between two other men, a beef that grew out of online trash talk over rap music.
Chronister, an amateur rapper known as Zchronik, recorded songs with another musical group, but was said to have released them without sharing credit. A war of words raged through social media and culminated the night of Feb. 26, 2017, in the parking lot of Oakley’s Grille on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.
It was there that Chronister drove with a friend, Micah Puckett, to fight with Matthew Cerro, who worked the Oakley’s kitchen with Manzi.
Cerro, an experienced fighter with training in wrestling and mixed martial arts, quickly pinned Manzi as the group watched and shouted. Chronister waited in the car, but walked over as the bystanders hurled insults.
Manzi recorded the fight’s final moments with a cell phone. The short video, which was played repeatedly in court last week, shows Cerro grappling with Puckett on the ground in the darkened parking lot as Chronister steps closer. A blade is visible in his left hand.
Manzi is heard shouting.
"What … are you going to do?" he says. "Nothing!"
Chronister then moves toward the camera with his hand raised. The image goes dark.
Defense attorney Ron Darrigo said that there is much more to what went on than just what was captured on the video.
"Obviously what Mr. Chronister did in the video is subject to interpretation," he said. "I think if you listen to and watch the video, the interpretation can be just as bad on the alleged victims."
Darrigo argued that Chronister believed he was going to be attacked next. He said — and, on this, the judge agreed — that Manzi was encouraging Chronister to join the fight.
"It’s reasonable for Zack to believe that great bodily harm was imminent with those circumstances," Darrigo said in closing arguments. "When you’re small, skinny, and you’re not tough, and you’re outnumbered, you’re outmatched by an individual that’s an MMA fighter, grabbing a knife is not unreasonable to protect yourself from great bodily harm."
In denying the stand your ground motion, the judge noted several statements Chronister made during a police interrogation, including a comment that he brought the knife so he wouldn’t get attacked and have a video of the beating posted to Twitter.
"I would rather catch whatever was going to happen to me and defend myself than get beat up and posted on the Internet and embarrassed and humiliated," Chronister said, as quoted by the judge.
The defendant also said he went after Manzi instead of Cerro because Cerro "would kill him."
"Those statements indicate that to the extent that the defendant feared anyone, it was Mr. Cerro and not Mr. Manzi," Nash said. "His fear with respect to Mr. Manzi seemed to be a fear of embarrassment through social media."
Chronister remains charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. A trial date is scheduled for September. If convicted, he could face up to 21 months in prison.
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.