By MELINDA OVERSTREET
Glasgow Daily Times
A federal judge sentenced former Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton to serve 18 months in prison, with two years of supervised release to follow, for two felony counts of witness tampering for which he was convicted in May.
In U.S. District Court, Western District of Kentucky, Chief Judge Joseph McKinley made his decision after hearing more than an hour’s worth of arguments from attorneys on both sides.
Federal sentencing guidelines are set up in levels, each of which contains a range of punishments appropriate to that level.
A considerable portion of the time was spent with the prosecution and defense posing challenges to each other’s interpretation of which sections of the sentencing guidelines should apply in this case, and whether enhancements – extra levels up – should be added because of various factors, such as Eaton, who resigned Wednesday, was a public official at the time of the offense.
Other elements the judge considered to include in the sentencing formula were whether Eaton was the “leader” in the crime, whether the victim was restrained and the number of harmed entities. There was also a question of whether justice was obstructed with the deletion of a photograph in regard to whether an enhancement could be added.
McKinley agreed with the prosecution on some of the enhancements and the defense on others.
The largest point of contention between the sides was whether the deprivation of rights under color of law charges based on allegations Eaton and three deputies unnecessarily assaulted Billy Randall Stinnett on Feb. 24, 2010, while he was being arrested and while in handcuffs, should be considered as an underlying offense, as the government wanted. Eaton’s attorney, Guthrie True, argued it should not be because Eaton and two of the deputies were acquitted on those charges and even the cooperating witness, Adam Minor, did not plead guilty to that charge against him as part of his plea agreement. The judge pointed out more than once Minor did admit to assaulting Stinnett.
Eaton was convicted for having a deputy falsify a report to say he had seen a knife on the ground in the area where Stinnett was confronted and for directing and suggesting that another person involved conceal information and provide false information to investigators that Stinnett had pulled a knife on Eaton.
True said the guidelines for determining underlying offenses are established by looking at the “offense of conviction,” but co-prosecutor Sanjay Patel pointed out that the guidelines to allow consideration of conduct and the underlying indictment.
Recommended sentences were based on formulas with additions and subtractions of levels. The prosecution had suggested 87 to 108 months. A presentence investigation report put together by the probation office recommended 46 to 57 months, while True argued in court documents that the range should be of 10 to 16 months. By the time McKinley determined which overall guidelines should be used and which enhancements he would allow, he had a formula of his own, with a range of 46 to 57 months.
With all of that established, the judge turned to the question of what a “reasonable sentence” would be.
McKinley sentenced Minor to two years of probation less than three hours earlier, and he noted the disparity between the punishments the government wanted for Minor, who had admitted to assaulting Stinnett, and Eaton, whom the jury acquitted of doing so.
Co-prosecutor Roy Conn III did not deny the difference, saying Eaton’s crime was more severe, and Minor and the others were under his control, so he could have prevented it all. Conn also noted Minor’s cooperation. He said their situations were “like apples and oranges to compare.”
True asked the court to consider a noncustodial sentence for Eaton, saying despite how aggressively the case had been investigated and prosecuted, there was “no indication, not a smidge” of evidence there was a history of his abusing employees or suspects in any way. He said the judge had received several letters of support from community members and painted him as a caring, compassionate man, “the kind of public servant we should want more of, not less of,” and someone who used the resources of his department to advance the lives of community members.
True said the only way the government would even talk to Eaton about charging him with anything differently was if Eaton would testify against the others, and he refused.
“If he has to go to the penitentiary to do it, frankly I think it’s a star in his crown … that he didn’t want to be part of that kind of justice,” True said.
He also asked the judge to take Eaton’s family into consideration, particularly his two children, a disabled stepdaughter and his wife’s brother’s two children whom Eaton and his wife took into their home to remove them from an abusive environment.
“They have rescued those children,” True said.
He said Eaton was exposed to a methamphetamine lab in 2010 that damaged his respiratory system and he has been diagnosed with diabetes since this all began.
True noted Minor’s sentence and the disparity the judge had mentioned there and with others involved in the investigation. He said he’d never been involved with a case where so many people had lied, including to a grand jury.
“All but one of those is uncharged. They will serve no penalty for their crime,” True said, adding it was because ultimately, those people said what the government wanted.
He pointed out Eaton’s resignation Wednesday, removing him from the environment where any such acts could occur, and that, because of his being a former sheriff, for his safety he would have to be farther away, creating more distance for his family to have to travel for visits.
True told the story of a sentencing situation where the judge had impressed him because “he looked at my client as a person,” and he asked McKinley to do the same.
Conn said after True approached the government to see whether any agreement could be reached, Eaton had an opportunity for a misdemeanor charge and was told he would have to testify against the others, but he was never asked to lie about anything.
McKinley reminded the prosecutors they said at Minor’s sentencing he was unlikely to commit further crimes and asked whether they felt the same way about Eaton.
“I’m not sure about that,” Conn said, but he said the punishment should be strong enough to send a message to all law enforcement officers.
Eaton then was provided the chance to speak, and before he could finish a sentence, he had to stop and try to gather his emotions. He was only partially successful.
He began talking about his 20-year career in law enforcement and how Wednesday, in a final staff meeting, he had to say goodbye to 38 people he loved.
“I don’t know what to do. I’m not a criminal. I’m not going to commit a crime,” Eaton said.
He continued, noting that he can no longer coach little league or be a volunteer at a school and saying he felt he was being treated as a child predator. He lamented that the first day of school was coming up, and he had always been involved in that.
“My life as I know it … is over,” Eaton said.
He stated he wants to clear his name.
Speaking of his own and the other children in his care, Eaton said, “They are my life.”
He went on to say he wouldn’t want to do anything to cause them embarrassment or hurt them.
Eaton said he could never go in a courtroom and lie about someone else; he would never be able to rest if they were in trouble while he was free.
McKinley said Eaton’s sentence would need to be enough to meet objections, but also sufficient for the crime. He would consider whether it would deter Eaton and others in the future and also the disparity of what was expected for the separate defendants.
“I can’t get over the fact that the jury did not convict him on the most serious crime,” the judge said of the deprivation of rights charges.
McKinley said he didn’t think it took much coercion or persuasion for Minor and then-Deputy Steve Runyon to give false statements, because he believed everyone was on the same page. And in the realm of witness-tampering cases he’d handled, this did not involve a level of threatening or violence that many had.
“Considering the nature of this offense, it’s serious, but it’s not typical,” the judge said. “You’ve had a lifetime of good work, and I’ve got to consider that and I will.”
On the other hand, McKinley said, it is a serious offense “and I don’t want to make light of that.”
His decision would have to respect the law and “it has to punish you,” he said to Eaton.
While McKinley didn’t believe Eaton would commit further crimes, the buck stopped with him because he was the one in charge, and the judge was not convinced that Eaton didn’t assault Stinnett and walk away. He also wanted to signal to all law enforcement officers that they couldn’t get away with doing wrong just because of their position, they are not above the law.
“I need to send a message, and I understand that,” the judge said, but he would not give Eaton the level of sentence the government wanted, with its “huge disparity” compared with Minor’s.
“I don’t see the justice in that,” McKinley said. “I knew that I could not in good conscience give you a guideline sentence.”
He announced then the number of months he’d decided and said the entire process of the investigation and the trial and their toll, as well as the loss of respect and Eaton’s no longer being sheriff or a member of any law enforcement agency were also punishing to him.
“Eighteen months I think is sufficient,” McKinley said, and that was to be followed by two years of supervised release with a probation officer, during which he would not have to be tested for drugs as he had no history of abuse.
Based on Eaton’s financial information, the judged determined that Eaton did not have the ability to pay a fine, “primarily because of the burden that will be on your family while you’re confined.”
He imposed $200 in court costs – $100 for each count on which Eaton was convicted.
He told Eaton that because his prison sentence was at least a year, it provides the option for him to be released sooner with good behavior.
Eaton was informed of his right to appeal within 14 days, and if he does, he may be released on a reasonable bond.
The next question at hand was whether Eaton should be placed in custody immediately or be allowed to voluntarily report at a later date. Conn requested that it be immediate; True requested the opposite. He also gave the judge a list of three potential facilities in order of preference to be far enough away so as to decrease safety risks for Eaton, but the judge said he never requests a specific facility.
McKinley would, however, recommend that Eaton be placed in one in Kentucky, close enough for his family to visit, but the Bureau of Prisons does not have to oblige.
“I’d ask to leave him free on the same bond if he chooses to appeal,” True said. “He’s certainly not a risk of flight.”
If there is no appeal, True said, he wanted Eaton to not have to report in until the first of the year, to minimize the number of holiday seasons away, “for the sake of his children.”
McKinley said he would let Eaton voluntarily surrender, but if there is no appeal, he would be expected to do so in the normal time frame – typically within 45 days. If Eaton does appeal, his attorney can file a motion to have him remain free while that is pending.
As soon as the court went into recess, Eaton’s grandmother hugged and kissed him. In the foyer, several hugged or shook hands with him.
Besides Eaton’s wife, at least 10 other of his family members had been in the courtroom along with several members of his wife’s family and at least half a dozen Barren County Sheriff’s Office staff members, but none of them commented.
True said he was “impressed with the judge’s handling of and his approach to it all,” and now he and Eaton would be thinking about the possibility of an appeal, which Eaton told the Daily Times on Wednesday he planned to pursue.
“I think that’s the plan,” True said, “but we’ll talk about that particularly now in light of today’s decision.”
Eaton had nothing to say after the proceeding as he was getting on the elevator at the William H. Natcher U.S. Courthouse in Bowling Green, and not much more than that by midafternoon when reached by telephone.
“I’ve been in this job 20 years and I have never been treated the way I’ve been treated, especially with the prosecutor standing up there today saying I’m a criminal and I’ll continue to be one,” Eaton said. “[According to the prosecution], ... [Minor’s] not going to be one, but I’m going to continue to be.”
He was referring to comments made after the judge posed the question as to whether the government felt the defendant was likely to commit future crimes.
Eaton said he was “just numb.”
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