Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

May 31, 2013

Lessons learned from Barren County’s trial of the century

Glasgow Daily Times

GLASGOW — For three weeks now, I have been trying to articulate what I learned and experienced during the federal trial of Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton, deputy Aaron Bennett and drug task force detective Eric Guffey.

Many of you read my professional observations and summaries of what happened as the trial unfolded, but those news stories provided only the slightest insight into what I actually experienced as a reporter and a citizen sitting in on my very first trial.

Going into it, my mind was full of concerns about how I was going to stay focused during such a long and boring ordeal, and I wondered how much of an impact covering a high-stakes trial might have on my career. I gave no thought to how it might impact me as a person.

Halfway through the trial, I found myself full of sarcastic observations, and I couldn’t wait to write a scathing column about courtroom antics. But when it was all over, it had become so much more than what I could put into words.

I will carry this trial experience with me for the rest of my life, for so many different reasons. I cannot fully articulate why, but instead of spending another month trying to find the perfect words, I thought I’d simplify my experience into a list.

So here is my list of what I learned, from casual tidbits to life lessons, during the BCSO trial:

-There is a huge, and I mean HUGE, difference between neutrality and presumption of innocence. I began the trial feeling neutral toward the defendants, but after the first day I took the judge’s admonitions about presuming innocence to heart, and I went into the rest of the trial presuming the defendants were innocent. That presumption is the cornerstone of our criminal justice system, and it sets a high standard for the prosecution to overcome. The prosecution, in this trial, did not overcome the standard of presumption of innocence.

— Witnesses do not swear on a Bible or “to God.” They are asked, “Do you swear or affirm that your testimony will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” and they respond “I do.”

— Apparently it is perfectly legal and admissible in court for an FBI agent to instruct a civilian to collect bloody evidence. And even if that civilian collects the evidence incorrectly, it can still be presented in court.

— Sometimes there is never actually an explanation given for why a piece of evidence is presented. To this day, the only reason I have gleaned for the bloody glove to be presented as evidence was to prove that FBI Agent Mike Brown had better things to do than drive back to Glasgow, and he trusted a church deacon even more than he trusted the state police or other FBI agents.

— The FBI determines whether you have lied. Period. It is your word against theirs, and they make the law when it comes to lying to federal investigators.

— A person can be indicted for a crime even if he was never present at the location the alleged crime occurred.

— The quickest way to become disillusioned with your local law enforcement is to watch a trial that pits some officers against others.

— “If I could have a moment, your honor,” is lawyer speak for “I have no idea what I need to say right now and I need a couple minutes to figure it out.”

— Those courtroom benches are hard. I mean, painfully hard. Bring a blanket or cushion if you have to sit through more than one day of a trial.

— Putting the sheriff on trial is perhaps the easiest way to get local residents to read the newspaper.

— A lawyer’s likeability and the impression he gives of trustworthiness will always be one of the biggest deciding factors in a trial.

— Just because you do not like the law, does not mean anything. A jury, and a citizen, must pass judgment based on the actual law, not what they want the law to be.

— Trials and indictments don’t just affect the person accused of a crime. Co-workers, friends, witnesses, any innocent, unrelated person can be pulled into a federal investigation. From always looking over your shoulder to mistrusting the government to being afraid to delete a photograph, those people may suffer the negative impact of being involved in that investigation for the rest of their lives.

— There is nothing quite so poignant as sitting next to strangers and watching the future of their loved ones hang in the balance of a sometimes imperfect justice system. I may not have known the Guffey, Eaton and Bennett families before the trial, but now I have shared one of the most intense experiences of their lives with them.

— There is a fine line between trusting a jury of your peers to make the correct decision, and realizing that a verdict is not even close to the end. A trial does not necessarily bring closure. In this case, Barren County citizens must accept the fact that Chris Eaton is our sheriff until the court system declares otherwise.

While the trial is not over until Eaton’s case is closed once and for all, as a community we must now search for what we want to take from this experience. Twenty years from now, what will people say Barren County learned from watching its sheriff go on trial? Did it learn to pick sides? To mistrust the criminal justice system? Or did it learn to move forward through terrible circumstances? Will we be able to say, one day, that going through this trial taught us to set high standards for the transperancy and honesty of our law enforcement officers, and will we use our power to elect officials that we have the utmost faith in to run our community justly, for the greater good instead of their individual desires?