Former Barren County Sheriff Chris Eaton, convicted of two counts of witness tampering, received an 18-month prison sentence Thursday in U.S. District Court.
Eaton, who resigned from office Wednesday, was found guilty by a jury in May on the federal charges.
The jury determined that Eaton had persuaded former deputies Adam Minor and Steve Runyon to write false incident reports for the FBI, which was investigating the actions of Eaton and several deputies involved in the Feb. 24, 2010, arrest of Billy Stinnett.
Prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice accused Eaton and two colleagues of using excessive force against Stinnett during his arrest and then lying about the incident afterward to the FBI.
Eaton was found not guilty of six other counts at trial, while Deputy Aaron Bennett and Detective Eric Guffey of the Barren-Edmonson-Allen County Drug Task Force were acquitted of all charges.
Appearing before Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley, a tearful Eaton struggled through his plea for leniency while addressing the court. He opened his remarks by saying he accepted the jury’s verdict.
“My life as I know it may be over,” said Eaton. “All I want to do for the rest of my life is clear my name. I don’t know anything else to do besides being in law enforcement.”
Federal sentencing guidelines, which account for the seriousness of the offense and the defendant’s criminal history, call for a sentence of between 46-57 months for the former sheriff.
Attorneys Roy Conn and Sanjay Patel from the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice argued for Eaton to receive a sentence within that range.
“Eaton engaged in witness tampering, short and simple,” Conn said. “He tried to obstruct the truth in this case. That strikes at the very heart of the criminal justice system.”
Conn argued that, as the chief law enforcement officer at the scene of Stinnett’s arrest, Eaton had the power to control what happened there, and that he used that authority to orchestrate a cover-up of the truth of what happened.
Eaton’s attorney, Guthrie True of Frankfort, attempted to obtain a non-custodial sentence for his client that would enable Eaton to avoid prison, pointing out the former sheriff’s years of public service, the numerous letters of support addressed to McKinley and concerns about Eaton’s health and family life.
Eaton and his wife are raising five children – two teenagers of their own plus a disabled adult daughter from his wife’s previous marriage and two of his wife’s nephews who are now in their custody.
“As I read (the letters from supporters), I read about a compassionate, caring public servant ... he has gone out of his way to be the kind of public servant I think we need a lot more of in this commonwealth,” True said. “The people of Barren County are damaged by the fact that Chris Eaton is no longer sheriff.”
The former sheriff also has recurring respiratory health problems dating back to exposure to a methamphetamine lab in 2010 along with a recent diabetes diagnosis, True said.
A downward departure from the sentencing guideline was justified because the sheriff’s office had no previously documented history of abusing people, True said, adding that Eaton made a good faith effort to resolve the case.
Eaton rejected an offer that would have him plead guilty to a felony in exchange for testifying against his co-defendants.
“If he has to go off to the penitentiary for that, frankly I think that’s a star in his crown,” True said.
Conn took issue with True’s characterization of the negotiations, saying that True initiated the conversation and offered to enter an Alford plea – which does not admit guilt but acknowledges enough evidence exists for a jury to convict – to a misdemeanor count.
McKinley weighed the circumstances of the case and Eaton’s background in deciding to depart downward from the guidelines.
The judge said he did not believe it took a lot of persuasion for Minor and Runyon to file false reports, voicing his opinion that the deputies were on board with any cover-up. Runyon, now retired from the sheriff’s office, was not charged with any crime.
Minor, who pleaded guilty to providing a false statement to federal investigators, was sentenced to two years of probation and a $500 fine Thursday. He cooperated with the government and testified against Eaton, Bennett and Guffey.
“Minor, I think, was covering for himself as much as he was covering for Mr. Eaton,” McKinley said.
Conn and Patel said at Minor’s sentencing hearing Thursday morning that his cooperation shortly after being indicted led to federal investigators gaining access to information that was previously unknown to them, and was important to securing one of the witness tampering convictions against Eaton.
In considering Eaton’s sentence, though, McKinley said he did not see the justice in handing down a prison sentence of nearly five years to Eaton when Minor, who testified to actually striking Stinnett after he had been handcuffed, received probation.
The judge said that the letters from supporters impressed on him that Eaton is a “model citizen,” but the offenses for which the former sheriff was convicted required punishment.
“What I do has to promote respect for the law,” McKinley said. “Looking at your history, I don’t think it’s likely you’ll commit a crime, but then again, the buck stops with you. You were the one in charge. You were sworn to uphold the law, not break it.”
Eaton will have 45-60 days to surrender and begin his sentence, True said after hearing. True will consult with Eaton on whether to file an appeal.
“I think Judge McKinley truly did what he felt was right,” True said of the sentencing order, expressing satisfaction that the judge went below the recommended guideline. “I still have many serious issues with the verdict – everybody knows that.”