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Saturday, March 08, 2014

Justice Department Officials File Briefs Urging To Let Stand Prison Sentence FDor Former Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton.


Lawyers urge that conviction stand

Former sheriff Eaton sentenced 18 months, remains free pending outcome of appeal

Lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice are urging a panel of federal appeals judges to uphold the conviction last year of former Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton on witness tampering charges.
Erin Flynn and Mark Gross, attorneys from the justice department’s Civil Rights Division, filed a brief this week with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that outlines their argument for Eaton’s guilt.

A jury in U.S. District Court in Bowling Green found Eaton guilty of two counts of witness tampering, agreeing unanimously that he encouraged then-deputies Steve Runyon and Adam Minor to provide false information to the FBI, which was investigating allegations that Eaton and others used excessive force during their arrest of Billy Stinnett in 2010.
Eaton was given an 18-month sentence but remains free pending the outcome of his appeal.

The 70-page brief requests oral arguments before the federal appeals court and counters the arguments in a brief filed in January by Eaton’s attorney, Guthrie True of Frankfort.
Flynn argues that sufficient evidence was presented at trial to support the jury’s guilty verdict against Eaton on both counts of witness tampering.

The federal case focused on the actions of Eaton and three colleagues when they arrested Stinnett, who had led law enforcement on an hour-long chase through Barren County that ended at Calvary Baptist Church in Glasgow.
Court records and testimony revealed that Eaton struck Stinnett with a baton in an effort to subdue him and place him under arrest.
The arrest was witnessed by youths inside the church who claimed Stinnett was hit with batons and kicked after he was handcuffed. One of the youths told her father, who later contacted the Glasgow Police Department.

Glasgow police then notified the FBI, which initiated the investigation.
Eaton, Deputy Aaron Bennett, Detective Eric Guffey of the Barren-Edmonson-Allen County Drug Task Force and Minor were charged with deprivation of rights under color of law and other offenses.
Bennett and Guffey were acquitted of all charges, while Minor pleaded guilty to making a false statement to federal investigators, reaching an agreement in which he testified for the government in exchange for a sentence of probation.

At the trial, Runyon testified that he was directed by Eaton to write a report for the FBI stating that he had seen a knife belonging to Stinnett on the ground at the scene of the arrest outside the church, even though Runyon was not involved in the arrest, was unfamiliar with the scene and had not observed the location of the knife.
Runyon, who retired last year from the sheriff’s office, also said that he felt his job was in jeopardy if he did not write the report.
“A juror reasonably could infer that Eaton, acutely aware of the FBI’s investigation into the officers’ use of force, knowingly directed Runyon to include false information in his report in order to make the amount of force the officers used, and Stinnett’s related injuries, appear justified,” Flynn wrote.
Minor testified that he prepared a report for the FBI under Eaton’s watch, the sheriff directing him to include false information about Stinnett pulling a knife on Eaton and dropping it at the arrest scene.

When testifying in state court about the case, Minor admitted withholding truthful information about the arrest and the recovery of the knife, which Stinnett disclosed to Minor was in his pants pocket and was retrieved from there by Eaton and Minor.
Minor said he omitted those details at Eaton’s direction.
“Minor explained that if he did not comply with Eaton’s instructions, he would have been fired and, because of Eaton’s political connections, faced difficulty finding another job in Barren County,” Flynn wrote.

Flynn went on to counter True’s contention that Eaton cannot be held liable for witness tampering because information about the knife was not material to whether officers assaulted Stinnett while handcuffed.
In her argument, Flynn asserts that the federal investigation focused on the circumstances of Stinnett’s arrest but was not limited just to what occurred once he was handcuffed.
Eaton was asked by the FBI to provide all information related to the physical confrontation with Stinnett, including information on whether Stinnett was armed, resisted arrest, threatened officers or possessed or brandished a weapon.
“As the Barren County Sheriff, Eaton would have known the importance of any such information when he directed Minor and Runyon to lie in their reports to the FBI,” Flynn wrote.
Additional arguments

Later in the brief, Flynn addresses True’s argument that the federal district court should have instructed the jury on an affirmative defense for Eaton’s contact with Minor and Runyon, in which the sheriff encouraged the deputies to relate truthful facts about the arrest to the FBI.
True has argued that the jury was left with the impression that any kind of contact between Eaton and the deputies in the wake of the investigation constituted witness tampering, but Flynn replies in her brief that the district court has found that Eaton did not point to any facts that would have made his conduct lawful.

True’s argument that the conviction should be overturned because the witness tampering count against Minor alleged two offenses in one count is also addressed by Flynn.
Flynn argues that federal law establishes that an indictment can allege that a defendant committed an offense by one or more means and that jurors do not need to come to unanimous agreement on which method to rely upon in convicting a defendant.

The government alleged in the witness tampering count involving Minor that Eaton persuaded him to conceal truthful information from the FBI about unreasonable use of force against Stinnett and to provide false information to the FBI about the knife in Stinnett’s possession.
“The jury did not need to agree on the precise facts establishing each element of the crime,” Flynn argues in her brief.

Flynn also pushes back on True’s argument that federal prosecutors made improper statements during their closing arguments regarding Eaton’s refusal to testify at trial.
True objected twice during the arguments, which led the government to clarify that the remarks were meant to persuade jurors to refer to statements Eaton and others made in their reports for the FBI, and Flynn argues that the prosecutors were commenting on inconsistencies between the defendants’ theories about the case and the evidence instead of Eaton’s refusal to testify.

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