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Manslaughter charge dropped against Florida man using 'Stand Your Ground' defense

Posted at 1:14 PM, Mar 26, 2018

Better known as “Hollywood,” William Difonzo, Jr. was accused of punching and killing a man at a bar in Lake Worth, Florida in February 2017.

Prosecutors announced Friday they have dropped the manslaughter charge against Difonzo, 27, citing lack of evidence, in the wake of him claiming “Stand Your Ground.”

Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Difonzo on June 26, claiming he fatally punched Sebastian Paz in the face at the suburban Lake Worth bar. 

Deputies say the altercation began when one of Paz’s friends tried saying hello to Difonzo in the parking lot of the bar, but Difonzo was upset and told the man to go away. 

A woman told the man to go inside because “Difonzo tends to be problematic,” the report states. The man went inside the bar, but shortly thereafter went back outside to smoke. 

Difonzo moved towards the man in the parking lot, clenching his fist. Paz jumped in between the two, looking to stop a potential fight.

A second witness told investigators Paz “had his arms crossed invading Difonzo’s personal space” as an argument broke out between the men.

Difonzo punched Paz hard in the face, according to the arrest report. Paz fell straight back onto the asphalt in the parking lock, hitting his head on a concrete parking stop. He immediately started bleeding from his mouth and nose.

Difonzo left the scene right away, according to a detective’s notes.

“Paz didn’t deserve to die,” a woman who witnessed the punch told investigators.

Paz was declared deceased the next morning in the hospital. The Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s office determined Paz’s cause of death was blunt force trauma and ruled the manner of death as a homicide. 

Four months later, Difonzo was booked into the Palm Beach County Jail.

Difonzo’s attorney Steven Bell said those witness’ stories changed once people were called into deposition. 

“All eyewitnesses have testified that they either did not see how the fight began or that Mr. Paz was the initial aggressor and [Difonzo] acted in self-defense,” Bell said.

That’s why Bell says in December he filed a motion to dismiss the manslaughter charge against Difonzo based on statutory immunity, better known as the “Stand Your Ground” defense.

In the motion, Bell cited a change in Florida law in June 2017 that shifts the burden of proof from the defense to the state. 

“It is now the state’s burden to show by clear and convincing evidence that [Difonzo] did not act in self-defense,” Bell wrote.  

A hearing on the stand your ground defense was scheduled for March 26.

Just days before, prosecutors announced they would no longer prosecute Difonzo on the manslaughter charge on Friday. Prosecutors said in court documents that “although there was probable cause to make an arrest, the evidence cannot prove all legally required elements of the crime alleged and is insufficient to support a criminal prosecution.”

“It was dismissed because he stood his ground, he defended himself,” Bell told WPTV. “He was essentially cornered outside of a bar”

But, he remains behind bars at the Palm Beach County Jail. 

Court records show Difonzo pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended license in a crash that killed one of his passengers in Jan. 2013. He was sentenced to three years in prison and two years probation, which was scheduled to end on May 3. 

His license was suspended in 2011 for driving under the influence, records state. 

In addition to the manslaughter charge, Difonzo was charged with violating his probation for getting arrested. He was also charged with testing positive for drugs and not reporting to his probation officer from Jan. 2017 until the time of his arrest in June.

Several court documents report Difonzo as a known gang member. 

On Monday, Difonzo pleaded guilty to violating his probation by testing positive for drugs and absconding from justice. The violation charge for his manslaughter arrest was dropped.

He was sentenced to five years in prison, with credit for three and a half years he has already spent behind bars. Bell had asked the judge to sentence him to time served.

“I respect the judge’s decision, but it’s not what he wanted,” Bell said.

Bell said he was relieved for Difonzo and Difonzo’s family when he learned the state had dropped the manslaughter charge.

“He was innocent so he was properly nolle prossed and dismissed.” Bell said Difonzo would have claimed “Stand Your Ground” even under the original rules of the law.

Difonzo could have faced 15 years in prison if convicted of manslaughter, according to Bell.

Former Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja has also filed a "Stand Your Ground" motion to dismiss the manslaughter and attempted murder charges against him in the death of Corey Jones. A hearing will take place on Wednesday.