By MELINDA J. OVERSTREET
Glasgow Daily Times
CINCINNATI — Former Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton’s appeal of his federal convictions on two charges of witness tampering moved forward Thursday with oral arguments.
A three-judge panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit punctuated the attorneys’ presentations with questions as they had with all six cases on the docket preceding Eaton’s, which was the last one it heard for the day. The trio’s decision will come at some point later in writing.
Eaton’s attorney, Guthrie True, has based the appeal on a handful of premises, and he began his allotted 15 minutes, three of which he reserved for rebuttal, by saying the charges were grounded on a “collateral and immaterial dispute.
What he has considered the primary point of disagreement is over when and where Billy Randall Stinnett had a knife on Feb. 24, 2010, when he was arrested on multiple charges following an hourlong chase that ended with his crashing the vehicle he was driving into a church building, taking off on foot and being caught when he reached a confined area.
Eaton and three others were charged with multiple offenses related to allegations that Stinnett was beaten after he was handcuffed and then tried to conceal what happened. A jury in U.S. District Court, Western District of Kentucky, in Bowling Green acquitted two of the others on all charges and Eaton of six of the eight charges. The other person – Adam Minor – accepted a plea deal and became a cooperating witness.
Minor claimed that Eaton asked him to lie about the extent of the force that was used in Stinnett’s arrest and to say that Stinnett pulled a knife on Eaton although Minor said Eaton pulled the knife from Stinnett’s pocket after he was detained. Another then-deputy, Steve Runyon, claimed Eaton wanted him to say he had seen a knife in the area where Eaton first caught up with and confronted Stinnett.
Eaton’s own statement said Stinnett’s fists were clenched and he was holding something that appeared to be a weapon. Stinnett was not responding to his orders to yield, and that Eaton struck Stinnett three times with a baton. Other law enforcement officers arrived and helped get Stinnett to the ground and eventually handcuffed and transported him. Stinnett, who had been transporting an active methamphetamine lab in the van, later said he was holding a vial during that initial confrontation with Eaton.
True contends that it doesn’t matter whether Stinnett had the knife then, because the allegations against Eaton and the others all centered around what happened – or didn’t – after Stinnett was cuffed.
“[Eaton] thought it was material,” said Judge Julia Smith Gibbons. “He didn’t know the jury was going to acquit him.”
She said according to the U.S. government’s case, Eaton wanted to make it look like Stinnett had the knife out and ready to attack him, and True said again that the issue was what happened afterward, not during the confrontation.
“The government’s theory is that he was beaten after he was cuffed,” True said.
True also points to the various versions of statements and testimony from Runyon and Minor at different times, and said the verdicts are against the weight of the evidence, because they are grounded “solely on the testimony of individuals who have admitted to perjury.”
True touched on a couple of other elements of the appeal having to do with how the jury instructions were worded, and pointed out that the prosecution had made an issue in its comments to the jury twice that the defendant did not testify in his defense.
He was cut off before he was finished by Judge Eric L. Clay, who said he was out of time.
Erin Flynn, a different attorney representing the U.S. government than during the trial, said during her 15 minutes that the prosecution had provided sufficient evidence so that “any rational fact finder could find proof beyond reasonable doubt.”
She contended that it did matter what happened before the cuffing, because it was related to the excessive force allegations. Regarding the issue of the “proof” being the testimony of perjurers, she said it is up to the jury to determine the credibility of witnesses, and the verdicts were reached even after the defense “hammered” the credibility issue with witnesses.
“There was plenty here for the jury to convict the defendant of both counts,” she said.
Even if she were to think the jury instructions were incorrect, Flynn said that is rarely a reason to overturn a verdict.
The comments made by the two-man prosecution team about Eaton’s not testifying were made in response to statements the defense made, Flynn countered, and they neither mislead nor enflamed the jury, which acquitted Eaton on the charges being discussed during the times his lack of testimony was raised.
In his rebuttal, True said the indictment was replete with wording about offenses alleged to have happened after Stinnett was in custody, and he believed the jury was made to believe it was illegal for Eaton to say anything to the deputies about what should be in their reports, but it is not a crime for him to direct or instruct them about what should be included, and what he did was “not corrupt persuasion.”
True touched again on the jury instructions, and Senior Judge Eugene E. Siler Jr. asked him whether he questioned the instructions at the time of the trial. True said he had not, but it turned out they were key issues.
“It’s awfully hard to overturn on one plain error of jury instructions,” Siler said.
True has asked the court to dismiss the charges, if not on any single one of his arguments, then on the cumulative effect of them. If the judges don’t see fit to dismiss, he has asked them to consider, in alternative, remanding the case back to U.S. District Court for a new trial.
At the conclusion of the hearing at Potter Stewart Courthouse in Cincinnati, Flynn said she is not permitted to comment, referring questions to a public affairs office.
True declined to speculate about how he thinks to judges will rule.
“It’s always difficult to tell, but it’s always difficult to overturn a conviction, so we’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.
Eaton was not at the proceeding.
“Generally, clients are not at the Court of Appeals,” True said.