BOWLING GREEN — After five and a half days of testimony, the government rested its case Tuesday and turned the trial of Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton, Deputy Aaron Bennett and Barren-Edmonson Drug Task Force Detective Eric Guffey over to the defense team. DTF Detective Ron Lafferty and Dr. George Nichols were the first two witnesses called to the stand by the defense.
Lafferty, who works alongside Guffey, was intermittently part of the Feb. 24, 2010, vehicle pursuit of Billy Randall Stinnett that ended with a foot chase and arrest. Lafferty was not one of the arresting officers, like the defendants, but was one of the first at the scene of Stinnett’s arrest at Calvary Baptist Church. Lafferty turned onto Cherry Street from Columbia Avenue that Wednesday evening to see a Barren County Sheriff’s Office SUV turn into what appeared to be a driveway next to the church, he testified. He saw Guffey’s truck parked across Cherry Street and watched Guffey run across the street into the alley where Stinnett and the SUV entered. Lafferty pulled into a driveway next to the alley, and as he was leaving his truck he said he saw Adam Minor and another deputy jump a fence and run after Stinnett.
Working on an earlier report that there may have been children with the suspect, Lafferty testified he first ran to the green van Stinnett had been driving, to ensure no one else was in there. When he opened the van door, the smell of anhydrous ammonia hit him in the face, Lafferty said, and he knew there was a methamphetamine lab in the vehicle. Lafferty said he then ran past the van and saw Eaton come around a corner, screaming in pain from being kicked by Stinnett. He also saw Guffey leave the scene around the same time as Eaton.
When Lafferty rounded the corner, he testified that Stinnett’s hands were cuffed behind his back and he was sitting on his heels with a deputy behind him. Lafferty still cannot remember who that deputy was, he said. He knows there was one, and there may have been more. Lafferty recited Stinnett’s Miranda rights as he walked toward him, and Stinnett acknowledged the rights with a nod and then a verbal yes.
“I never saw anyone strike him,” Lafferty testified.
It seemed like only 30 seconds or less passed between pulling his truck into that Cherry Street driveway and running around that corner to see Stinnett, Lafferty said. That “30 seconds or less” became a sticking point between Lafferty and the prosecution, as testified by Lafferty and then demonstrated in Lafferty’s grand jury transcript and his cross examination by prosecutor Roy Conn III.
J. Guthrie True, defense counsel for Eaton, asked Lafferty whether anyone suggested before his February 2011 grand jury testimony that he exclude any portion of his memory of the events. Before he testified to the grand jury, Lafferty told True that the prosecution team, which included Conn, FBI agent Mike Brown and Assistant U.S. Attorney Joshua Judd, “highly recommended” that Lafferty not tell the grand jury he thought he was on scene in about 30 seconds. Lafferty could not remember exactly which person made the suggestion, but he said he reiterated that the time frame was his estimate based on his memory. Lafferty was then reminded he could be criminally charged for lying to a federal grand jury, he said.
“I felt like I was being threatened, what it felt like to me,” Lafferty said.
Conn disputed Lafferty’s testimony about the 2011 grand jury, and asked Lafferty about how he, Conn, treated him. Lafferty said Conn was cordial, and he did not think Conn made the suggestion but that to the best of his memory, Conn was present when the suggestion to exclude information was made.
In an argument about what was said in the grand jury, Lafferty told Conn that he remembered saying openly in grand jury that he felt pressured, while Conn referenced a portion of the grand jury transcript in which Lafferty said he was treated fairly. However, True found an earlier portion of the transcript in which there was some back-and-forth between Lafferty and his questioner about the 30 seconds and whether Lafferty was being called a liar, and Lafferty confirmed that was the discussion he remembered.
Conn said Lafferty was on the stand to help the defense, and Lafferty took umbrage with Conn’s implication.
“I’m here to tell the truth,” Lafferty said. “It’s not playing favorites one way or the other.”
On Feb. 24, 2010, Lafferty testified he was positive that when Guffey ran across the street in pursuit of Stinnett, he was wearing his black DTF-issued vest. He remembers, Lafferty said, because he was surprised Guffey got it on so fast. Lafferty did not have enough time to get his own vest on. Throughout the trial, prosecutors have used photographs of Guffey on the scene in a brown jacket to suggest that Guffey’s jacket could have blended in with the brown law enforcement uniforms described by eye witnesses as being worn by men who allegedly beat Stinnett after he was in handcuffs. Guffey’s defense attorney has stated that Guffey did not put his jacket on until after Stinnett’s apprehension.
While Stinnett was in custody outside a patrol car in the street later, Lafferty testified that he saw Eaton walk up to Stinnett with a knife and ask Stinnett if it was his. Stinnett confirmed that it was. That account does not match earlier testimony from Minor, a government cooperating witness, that Eaton pulled the knife from Stinnett’s pocket.
Lafferty testified that later on the night of Feb. 24, 2010, after the meth lab in the van was cleaned up and it had gotten dark, he and Guffey returned to the area where Stinnett was handcuffed. Using a flashlight, they scanned for evidence and found a vial containing what was later confirmed to be methamphetamine. Lafferty did see blood on the ground, about the size of a half-dollar, he testified, but he does not remember pointing it out to Guffey and it did not strike him as important. It was “no big hidden secret” that Stinnett had gotten cut on the head, Lafferty said, and as a drug task force detective he was much more focused on the meth. He did not notice any blood spatter.
Following Stinnett’s arrest, Lafferty, as the drug case officer, wrote a uniform offense citation about the drug aspects of Stinnett’s arrest. In putting together that report, Lafferty collected and included information from other officers. Later, when asked by Eaton to write a report for the FBI as part of an investigation into a possible civil rights investigation, Lafferty testified that he and Guffey were together in the DTF office when they wrote reports, and they only put about 10 to 15 minutes of effort into the reports. Lafferty copied and pasted some information from his uniform offense citation. At that time, Lafferty said he “didn’t think there was anything to” the FBI’s investigation.
In both reports, Lafferty wrote that a knife was found on the ground near the suspect. That information was never intended to make it appear Lafferty himself found the knife, he said. That was information that he gathered, maybe from another officer or maybe something he just assumed from other facts, and he wrote it like he would in any other report. If it was intended to indicate Lafferty found it, he said he would have written that “Det. Lafferty…” The lack of attribution caused Brown to think Lafferty found the knife. Lafferty told Conn that if anything, this investigation has taught him to phrase his reports differently in the future.
Dr. George Nichols, consulting forensic pathologist and retired chief medical examiner for the state of Kentucky, took the stand next as an expert witness. Nichols has extensive experience studying injuries and their causes in dead bodies as well as living people, he said, and he has served as an expert witness for probably more than 1,000 cases. For this case, Nichols said he reviewed photographs taken of Stinnett’s injuries, medical records from the T.J. Samson Community Hospital emergency room and witness statements.
Photographs document a five-centimeter laceration on Stinnett’s head, a scab and bruise on Stinnett’s elbow and various other bruises. While March 4, 2010, photographs show that Stinnett’s bruises are old at that point, Nichols said it is a myth that a bruise’s age can be determined by its color. Tissue samples would have to be taken in order to make any meaningful determination of the age of the bruises, Nichols said.
It is possible that Stinnett’s linear head laceration was caused by a baton, Nichols said, but there is no way to tell. The laceration, whether it was created in the struggle or an hour earlier in the van, would probably have bled a lot, Nichols testified.
“Scalp lacerations are notorious for spurting,” Nichols said.
When adrenaline of a chase or a struggle is considered, Nichols said the blood from Stinnett’s head could have traveled from the witness stand to the wall behind the jury box.
Stinnett’s bruises were definitely not caused by the shaft of a baton, Nichols testified, because there are no lines that indicate the width of the baton striking skin. Bruises behind Stinnett’s ears may have been caused by fists, but they could have been caused by a struggle while officers attempted to arrest Stinnett. The bruises’ shapes were all ambiguous as to what caused them.
“Could be a fist. Could be from bumping into an object in a motor vehicle,” Nichols said.
Bruises on the thigh could have been caused by kicks, Nichols said, but lower on the legs, Stinnett’s shins showed no sign of having been hit multiple times by a baton, as previously testified in trial.
“There would have been open wounds,” Nichols said.
When prosecutor Sanjay Patel brought up Stinnett’s steel-toed boots, Nichols agreed those might have protected the skin they covered. Blue jeans would not have been any protection, Nichols said.
Marks made by batons would have been affected by whether the person holding the baton was using his dominant hand, the speed of the strike and the padding of Stinnett’s two jackets, Patel said, and Nichols agreed.
However, Nichols told Patel he was wrong when the prosecutor said abrasions described in the emergency room records could have been caused by a baton. The T.J. Samson staff documented a variety of abrasions, and Nichols said an abrasion is a scrape, which could not be caused by a baton. Abrasions are generally caused by scraping a hard surface, such as pavement, Nichols said. Stinnett was arrested in a grassy area.
Nichols is paid to be an expert witness, and he told Patel that his rate is $400 per hour. Before court began, Nichols said he had spent four hours on the Stinnett case.