A former state chief medical examiner testified Tuesday at the federal trial of Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton and two colleagues that bruises on Billy Stinnett’s leg, arm and head were not consistent with injuries caused by strikes from a baton.
The government rested its case in the trial against Eaton, Deputy Aaron Bennett and Detective Eric Guffey of the Barren-Edmonson County Drug Task Force, while the defense called its first two witnesses as the trial entered its seventh day in U.S. District Court.
Eaton is charged with three counts of deprivation of rights under color of law, two counts of witness tampering and one count each of falsification of documents, giving a false statement to federal investigators and destruction of a record, document or tangible object.
Guffey is charged with two counts each of deprivation of rights under color of law and providing a false statement to federal investigators, while Bennett faces one count each of the same charges.
The officers face allegations of using excessive force in placing Stinnett under arrest Feb. 24, 2010, and then lying about the incident to federal investigators.
Dr. George Nichols was called as an expert witness for the defense to give his opinion of Stinnett’s injuries.
Nichols, who established the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office for Kentucky and served in that capacity for 20 years, was shown pictures of Stinnett taken by Special FBI Agent Mike Brown on March 4, 2010, when the agent went to interview Stinnett.
During questioning from Eaton’s attorney, Guthrie True of Frankfort, Nichols said a five-centimeter laceration on the top of Stinnett’s head could have been caused by a strike from a baton or from the head making impact with the interior of a vehicle during a crash.
Stinnett led law enforcement on an hourlong chase through the county prior to his arrest, crashing his van and briefly running from officers before being caught. Defense attorneys have attempted to raise the possibility that Stinnett’s head wound occurred in the crash.
Photos depicting bruises on Stinnett’s right inner thigh, left arm near the elbow and both ears were also shown, and Nichols said it was “highly doubtful” that the bruises were caused by a baton and he could not determine from the pictures when the injuries were inflicted.
Nichols said that strikes from a police baton leave a distinct mark on the body that did not match the bruises on Stinnett’s body. “The skin surface does not have a pattern of injury I would expect to see from a baton,” Nichols said.
Sanjay Patel, trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, cross-examined Nichols, who acknowledged under questioning from the prosecutor that the appearance of bruises caused by strikes from a baton can be affected by which part of the baton makes contact with the body and how much clothing shields the skin from the baton.
Detective recalls arriving at scene
Detective Ron Lafferty of the Barren-Edmonson Drug Task Force was the first defense witness called Tuesday.
Lafferty said he was involved in the pursuit of Stinnett and arrived on Cherry Street shortly after the chase ended near Calvary Baptist Church.
Lafferty said he left his vehicle and first went to the crashed van to make sure no one else was inside, and he recalled being overwhelmed by the smell of anhydrous ammonia from inside the vehicle, the odor suggesting the presence of a meth lab.
From there, Lafferty said he ran through an alley toward the arrest scene outside the church, and as he came up a rocky incline to turn toward where Stinnett was, Lafferty encountered the sheriff.
“I see Sheriff Eaton holding his knee, screaming in pain,” Lafferty said, adding that Stinnett was on his knees with his hands behind his back.
Eaton told Lafferty that Stinnett had something in his hands and had kicked him in his knee, Lafferty testified.
Lafferty said that while he did not see a knife lying at the scene, he did witness Eaton approach Stinnett to ask him about a knife he claimed to have found.
“Eaton walked up to Stinnett and had the knife in his hand and he asked ‘Is this your knife?’ and (Stinnett) said ‘Yes, it is,’ ” Lafferty said.
The detective memorialized that observation in a police report that stated that a knife was found at the scene.
Guffey’s attorney, Brian Butler of Louisville, asked Lafferty what he remembered Guffey wearing at the scene.
Lafferty testified that he remembered Guffey wearing a black bullet-resistant vest, saying he remembered it because he was surprised that Guffey put it on so quickly after he and Lafferty left the office to go to the crime scene.
Three eyewitnesses who watched the arrest from inside the church testified last week that they saw law enforcement officials in brown uniforms participating in the foot pursuit and arrest.
Under cross-examination from Roy Conn, another prosecutor from the justice department’s civil rights division, Lafferty insisted that it felt to him that about 30 seconds pass from the time he stepped outside his vehicle at the scene to the moment he encountered Eaton, even with a stop to look inside the wrecked van.
Conn asked Lafferty numerous questions about the recovered knife, pointing to grand jury testimony from Feb. 9, 2011, in which he said that he learned about the knife from either Eaton or Guffey.
In the incident report he wrote following the arrest, a verbatim copy of which was later submitted to the FBI, Lafferty said simply that a knife had been recovered, providing an opening for Conn to ask whether it seemed reasonable to infer from the reports that Lafferty found the knife himself.
Lafferty maintained Tuesday that he did not find the knife and testified that he did not know where the knife came from.
“As a general matter, don’t you think if somebody found a piece of evidence, it’s important to note who found it?” Conn asked.
“My concern was I had a meth lab,” Lafferty responded, noting he was responsible for the investigation into the drug offenses associated with the incident. “The knife was not my concern.”
Government calls FBI agents, rests case
The prosecution rested its case Tuesday morning, with FBI Special Agent Mike Brown returning to the stand for a second day to complete his testimony.
Under cross-examination from Butler, Brown said it was not FBI policy to have a private citizen collect evidence in an investigation, as happened when Kelly Billingsley, who contacted authorities about the incident with Stinnett, agreed to collect a bloody glove that had been found at the scene.
Billingsley testified last week that he was surprised at Brown’s request, but he agreed to collect the glove.
Brown also admitted being wrong about when he initially suspected Deputy Bobby McCown of wrongdoing.
A grand jury indicted McCown in February 2012, with Brown saying he pursued the charges based on eyewitnesses at the church who named McCown as a participant in the arrest and other witnesses who did not corroborate an alibi McCown had given.
Brown later testified under questioning by Conn that Adam Minor, a former deputy who pleaded guilty to making a false statement to investigators, came forward and said McCown was not at the scene.
Brown said that he believed Minor because he was at the scene and named the other officers present, and a superseding indictment was returned in March 2012 that dismissed all charges against McCown.
One of the charges against Guffey stemmed from him delivering contradictory statements in a pair of interviews with the FBI.
On April 20, 2010, Guffey told investigators that he did not see Eaton strike Stinnett with a baton, claiming to have had “tunnel vision,” but during a March 23, 2011, interview with the FBI in Bowling Green, Guffey said that he saw Eaton and Stinnett in an altercation and saw the sheriff strike Stinnett with his baton more than once.
Guffey also gave conflicting statements about whether he saw blood at the scene, Brown said.
When questioned by Bennett’s attorney, Robert “Buddy” Alexander of Glasgow, Brown said the charge against Bennett stemmed from false statements he made that he did not strike Stinnett after he had been handcuffed.
FBI Special Agent Michael Shafer was the last government witness to testify.
Shafer interviewed Guffey on two occasions on March 27, 2011, and in that interview the detective told Shafer that at the arrest scene, he witnessed Stinnett on the ground in an altercation with Eaton and saw Stinnett being struck more than once with the baton.
Guffey would later get on top of Stinnett, who was lying on his stomach, and attempt to get his hands out from under him in order to subdue and arrest him. Two other officers arrived at the scene to assist Guffey, and the detective was able to subdue and arrest Stinnett with a pair of handcuffs given to him by another officer.
In the first interview, Guffey told Shafer that he did not see any blood on Stinnett or in the area of the arrest, Shafer said.
In a follow-up interview the same day, Guffey said that Stinnett was standing when the detective first saw him at the scene and that Eaton had pushed him down during a confrontation, according to Shafer.
Another difference in Guffey’s two accounts was that in one Guffey said he restrained Stinnett on his own, but in the other, two additional officers assisted Guffey in restraining Stinnett, Shafer testified.
The trial resumed this morning.