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.