BOWLING GREEN — EDITOR’S NOTE: All charges against the defendants are accusations only, not statements of fact. Evidence presented and statements made by attorneys in closing arguments are left to the jury to determine their value.
Attorneys Brian Butler and Buddy Alexander wrapped up final closing arguments for the defense Thursday, before the government had one final opportunity to tell the jury how there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton, Deputy Aaron Bennett and Barren-Edmonson Drug Task Force Detective Eric Guffey beat Billy Randall Stinnett after he was handcuffed on Feb. 24, 2010.
“Eric Guffey didn’t hit anybody. Eric Guffey didn’t kick anybody. Eric Guffey didn’t hit anybody with a baton. And he didn’t sit by and watch anybody else do it either,” Butler said, starting his closing argument the same way he started his opening argument.
It means a lot, Butler said, that a federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent testified in a federal trial to the character and reputation of a defendant. ATF Agent David Hayes’ Wednesday testimony demonstrates the respect Guffey has earned in the local law enforcement community, Butler said. It also means a lot that Guffey’s boss, Jeff Scruggs, testified on Guffey’s behalf.
“[Eric is] a good, decent, moral man and he didn’t do anything wrong,” Butler said.
No one has testified that Guffey ever actually hit Stinnett, Butler said. The government has alleged that Guffey aided and abetted a beating by handcuffing Stinnett. But though Butler said he doesn’t think there is evidence to prove an assault occurred once Stinnett was handcuffed, Guffey himself was doing his job when he handcuffed Stinnett in the course of a legitimate arrest. If Stinnett was assaulted after Guffey walked away, Butler told the jury that does not make him an aider and abettor.
There are two realities to be considered in this case, Butler said. One is the reality of the young witnesses who observed Stinnett’s arrest. Those children were young and sheltered, he said, and had never seen the violence of an arrest of a fleeing suspect.
The other reality is the daily reality of a law enforcement officer, Butler said. On Feb. 24, 2010, those officers rounded a corner to come face-to-face with a man high on methamphetamine, holding something in his hand and looking frantic.
“It’s not hyperbole to say they didn’t know if they were gonna live or die that day,” Butler said.
Those children in the church may not have been intentionally lying, Butler said, but their accounts of a violent beating don’t match the physical evidence in the case. There was no evidence on Stinnett’s body of the alleged 15 baton strikes to the legs. The witness was wrong, Butler said.
“I think dramatic situations lead to recollections that are unreliable,” Butler said.
The government tried to fix holes in its case by coercing and intimidating witnesses into telling stories that filled gaps in their case, and then trying to ignore facts that didn’t help the prosecution, Butler told the jury.
The church witnesses all described officers in brown uniforms beating Stinnett, he said, and prosecutors used a photo of Guffey in a brown coat to suggest that his coat blended in with the uniforms. But Guffey told the FBI he was wearing a black vest when he helped arrest Stinnett, Butler said, and FBI agent Mike Brown left that detail out of his report. Even one of the church witnesses said one or more officers backed away from the scene after Stinnett was handcuffed, Butler said.
The only person who places Guffey at the scene while Stinnett was being assaulted is Adam Minor, the government’s cooperating witness. Since taking a plea, Minor has been the government’s “fix-it man,” Butler said, filling any gaps in the story of the alleged beating.
Minor has signed a binding plea agreement, Butler told the jury, so what happens to him is now completely up to the government based on whether prosecutors like what he has done for them.
“They bought him,” Butler said.
Some parts of Minor’s story are simply unreasonable to believe, according to Butler. Minor said Eaton was not kicked by Stinnett, but rather hit with a baton by Bennett. But everyone else, including Stinnett, has testified that Eaton was kicked, Butler said.
In an attempt to prove willfulness, Minor has testified that Eaton told Minor and Bennett it was their turn after Eaton himself had struck Stinnett multiple times. However, in the same testimony Minor said he yelled to Bennett that Stinnett had Hepatitis C and Bennett didn’t hear him because it was too loud in that alley, Butler reminded the jury.
The jury instructions tell jurors not to convict a defendant based on the unsupported testimony of an accomplice, Butler said, and Minor’s testimony is not corroborated by the evidence.
“You just can’t rely on Adam Minor for anything,” Butler said.
The charge against Guffey of lying to the FBI about whether he saw blood at the arrest scene and whether he told the FBI about it just demonstrates the vindictiveness of the government’s case, Butler said. The jury has only two FBI agents to rely on whether Guffey made that statement, and both those agents have made mistakes in other areas of the case. Further, the statement was completely immaterial because there was never any dispute that blood was at the scene, Butler said.
Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is “proof which is so convincing you would not hesitate to rely on it when you are making the most important decisions in your life,” Butler read from the jury instructions. The evidence in this case does not support that an assault occurred, and it does not support that Guffey would have been present to witness an assault, Butler said.
A native of Barren County, Alexander told the jury that “our county has suffered from this situation.” Barren County has good law enforcement, Alexander said, and this prosecution of three of its officers has put a strain on the community.
The defendants are presumed innocent until the government proves their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, Alexander reminded the jury. “Reasonable force” is an important phrase to remember in this case. A convicted felon who was high on meth, had a history of fleeing police and was holding something in his hand would have required a certain amount of force to apprehend. There was not a lot of time in that altercation of Feb. 24, 2010, for reflection, Alexander said, and the officers were making split-second decisions to secure a criminal. While the government alleges a severe beating, Stinnett suffered no permanent or long-term injuries, no broken bones.
The defendants actually did Stinnett a favor that day, Alexander said. In prison, Stinnett testified that he now eats and sleeps regularly, works out and is off methamphetamine.
Bennett’s broken hand has been used by the prosecution as proof that he assaulted Stinnett, Alexander said, but the medical evidence shows that Stinnett’s head laceration was not the result of a fist strike, or multiple fist strikes. There is no way to tell when Bennett broke his hand, or how exactly he broke it.
“I don’t think there is any proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Aaron Bennett did anything beyond what was reasonably necessary,” Alexander said.
While the girls testified they saw officers punching Stinnett, Alexander said from a second story window it would look like the officers were punching Stinnett if they were trying to dig his arms out from under him in order to get him handcuffed.
What the girls saw mostly corroborates the officers’ account of what happened with Stinnett, Alexander said. Their interpretation of the movements and actions are what are incorrect.
Everyone knows what they are dealing with in Adam Minor, Alexander said. Even his description of jumping the fence with Bennett and seeing Stinnett on the ground, handcuffed, doesn’t make sense because the place he said he jumped the fence is not in sight of the area where Stinnett was apprehended.
There is no proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the three defendants used any more force than was reasonably required to apprehend a dangerous criminal, Alexander said. Multiple law enforcement witnesses testified that even deadly force would have been understandable against a fleeing suspect who had an object in his hand he would not drop. A jury has to remove themselves from the comfort of the courtroom to remember the intensity of the officers’ encounter with Stinnett.
“It’s so much easier for us to pass judgment than to be out there, trying to protect and serve,” Alexander said.
U.S. Department of Justice civil rights prosecutor Sanjay Patel got one more chance for a rebuttal after the closing arguments of the defense. Patel focused on the reasons why the church youths and Minor were believable witnesses, and the idea that beating a suspect once he is in handcuffs can never be justified as reasonable force.
After the government’s rebuttal, Judge Joseph H. McKinley Jr. read some final jury instructions and the jury began deliberation.