TAMPA -- When jurors appeared on the brink of deadlocking, a Marine veteran took a plea deal Friday evening and was sentenced to 15 years in state prison for shooting a sheriff's deputy in 2011.
The deal ended a four-year legal saga and represented a compromise between the prosecution, which conceded Matthew Buendia suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the insanity defense of Buendia, who admitted shooting the deputy.
Deputy Lyonelle De Veaux then said she had forgiven Buendia the night he shot her.
In an emotional night-time court scene, Buendia tearfully apologized to De Veaux, and she accepted. The deputy said she hopes the case will call attentions to veterans' mental health treatment and how the community deals with police.
"I just want to say to you it's been a long four years," De Veaux said to Buendia, who could have faced a life sentence if convicted of the first-degree attempted murder to which he pleaded guilty. "I forgave you that night. I don't harbor any anger toward you, revenge.''
De Veaux then referred to the plea deal, which was hammered out after jurors sent out a note after five hours of deliberations asking what would happen if they couldn't reach a verdict.
"I understand it's a really difficult choice for you and your defense team and for your family. But believe it or not I've been praying for you and I believe that both our lives were spared that night because of God. That's my true belief.
"I never wanted you to go to prison for life," she said. "That's not what I wanted for you. OK? But I do want to bring attention to the fact that I think there are issues with how the mental health community deals with veterans issues when they're returning. There are also issues with how our community deals with our police officers right now. And I think that the situation that both of us have been placed in gives the community an opportunity to fix what's been going on.
"But I wanted you to know from Lyonelle De Veaux, not Deputy De Veaux, to Matthew Buendia, I forgive you and I wish you all the best."
An anguished Buendia then addressed the deputy before he was taken back to jail.
"I'm completely sorry," he said, sobbing. "I never would have thought this would have happened in my life. I would never want this to happen to anybody. I'm still proud I served the United States Marine Corps and I would still do it again even though -- having PTSD. But I just want to say I'm totally sorry to you. I'm glad you're OK."
"I accept your apology," DeVeaux said.
In addition to the 15-year prison sentence -- with a minimum of 10 years before release -- Buendia will have be on probation for life with several conditions, including undergoing a mental health evaluation six months before he is released and following therapeutic recommendations.
After Buendia was sentenced, jurors were brought into court and dismissed from service without having to decide whether Buendia's PTSD rendered him insane when he fired nine times at De Veaux on Sept. 30, 2011.
That night, De Veaux had responded to a domestic violence call involving Buendia and his girlfriend. De Veaux was hit twice in the leg and once in the shoulder.
Assistant State Attorney Anthony Falcone argued during his closing argument Friday that Buendia's actions that day prove he knew what he was doing when he shot De Veaux near her patrol car while Buendia's girlfriend, Jessica Gipson, was in the back seat.
Buendia, who was taking medication for PTSD, had been drinking even though he had been warned not to, Falcone said. Alcohol and anger played a role in Buendia's decision to shoot the deputy, the prosecutor said.
De Veaux survived the shooting but suffered permanent scars, Falcone said.
"He had absolutely no idea what he was doing when he fired that weapon," said defense lawyer Mark O'Brien. "He was at a different place. He's not angry; he's not drunk. He's sick."
Buendia volunteered at the age of 18 to serve in the Marines and did tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, O'Brien said.
"When he came back, he was not the same," the lawyer said. "He was different... Although he has his limbs and he has his eyesight and he can hear, he, too, is broken."
O'Brien said Buendia resisted seeking help at first but ultimately went to a Veterans Administration hospital at the urging of family and friends. The lawyer said the VA failed Buendia by giving him medications but not counseling.
"Is it the VA's fault? No," O'Brien said. "They're overworked. They don't have enough people."
Buendia worked from home for an insurance company. That night, he and his girlfriend went to a gathering at a nearby nightclub. Buendia was "on edge, paranoid," the defense lawyer said.
Buendia had five or six mixed drinks and when he was driving home, his girlfriend became fearful and tried to get out of the car. He held her, pulled her back and called her stupid, Falcone said.
When they got to the Inwood Park apartment complex where they lived, Buendia threw a fast food bag at Gipson's head, Falcone said. Gipson said she was going to her mother's house and Buendia started throwing things.
Gipson went into the bathroom to get away, and she saw Buendia go to his car to get his gun, Falcone said. When he returned, Gipson tried to grab the gun, and Buendia told her not to be stupid.
He put the gun in an armoire and lay down on a bed with a pillow on him and wept, the prosecutor said. He took some pills out and swallowed them. Gipson tried to call 911 and Buendia grabbed the receiver and slammed it down.
Gipson ran to try to get help from a neighbor. But she had succeeded in connecting to 911, so the sheriff's office responded to the "open line call."
Gipson told Buendia he was going to be hospitalized under the Baker Act. And she told him he was going to be arrested. In the confusion, Buendia's dog ran away.
Outside the apartment, Buendia picked his girlfriend up by the throat and threw her to the ground, Falcone said. He charged her, tackled her and punched her three times. The neighbor grabbed Buendia by the waistband, and Gipson ran toward the gates of the apartment complex where she met De Veaux.
Buendia walked toward the deputy with his palms up and said he needed to find his dog, Falcone said. De Veaux tried to escort Buendia to his apartment.
Buendia lifted his shirt, pulled his gun from his waistband and fired nine times in the deputy's direction, striking her, before running to the apartment.
O'Brien argued that the evidence shows Buendia was behaving in a way he'd been trained in the Marines to act when under threat.
"He lays suppressive fire, not because he was trying to kill someone, but because he was trying to escape," O'Brien said.