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6th Cir. Upholds Former Sheriff's Witness Tampering Conviction

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on April 23, 2015 1:08 PM

Witness tampering? That's old and busted, run-of-the-mill, hardly worthy of news. How about when the person doing the tampering is a police officer? Yeah, suddenly you're interested.

Christopher Eaton, the (former, at this point) sheriff of Barren County, Kentucky, was convicted of witness tampering for ordering officers under his command to make false statements in an FBI investigation into excessive use of force on a suspect named Billy Stinnett.

Lying Liars

Stinnett was arrested following an hour-long car chase. He crashed his car into a church, then fled on foot to an alley behind the church. He was cornered by sheriff's deputies and put his hands behind his head, attempting to surrender.

But the deputies were having none of that. Eaton himself hit Stinnett over the head with a baton and continued to hit him even after he fell to the ground. One deputy hit Stinnett so frequently and so hard that he broke his hand. Rather than stop punching, he switched to using a baton. As they were taking him away, one deputy asked Eaton if he had any weapons on him. He responded that he had a pocket knife in one of his pockets. Eaton took the knife, then punched Stinnett in the groin.

Unbeknownst to the deputies, three teenagers watched the whole incident from a church window. They contacted their father, who called the police department, who then contacted the FBI. An FBI agent visited Eaton and was surprised to learn that Eaton hadn't written a use-of-force report. In fact, Eaton urged deputies not to write them because "the more reports you write, the more you could get hemmed up."

Two deputies testified that Eaton asked them to write false reports; namely, to claim that the pocket knife was on the ground at the arrest scene and that Stinnett was resisting arrest. Eaton not-so-thinly threatened that their jobs would be in jeopardy if they didn't comply.

I Probably Didn't Do It

After all that, how could Eaton challenge his conviction? For one, he claimed there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction, which the Sixth Circuit said was plainly silly, finding "abundant evidence" to support his guilt. (He also claimed that the jury shouldn't have relied on the testimony of "two admitted perjurers"; i.e., the deputies that Eaton ordered to perjure themselves -- but that argument wasn't going to work, either.)

Eaton also claimed he was entitled to a jury instruction on an affirmative defense; namely, that the deputies' conduct in beating up Stinnett was lawful and Eaton's sole intention was to get the deputies to testify truthfully. Of course, at trial Eaton presented no evidence to support this defense.

Finally, Eaton argued that the prosecutor made comments during closing arguments that rendered the trial unfair. The prosecutor referred to questions the defense asked of its use-of-force expert, and wondered out loud why the defense would ask these questions even though it presented no evidence that it used force to get Stinnett to comply.

This argument could have teeth if it looked like the prosecution were commenting on Eaton's failure to testify, but the Sixth Circuit said the prosecutor was "commenting on defendants' version of the incident as stated in their reports." And even if it were, the error wasn't prejudicial because "[t]he evidence against Defendant on the witness tampering charges was very strong."

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