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United States v. Eakes

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah

August 29, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF
v.
JAMES EAKES, DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant James Eakes's Original and Amended Motion for Judgment of Acquittal or, in the alternative, for New Trial, [R. 47; 60]. The United States of America, (“the Government”), responded to Eakes's original motion, [R. 48]. No further pleadings are necessary. This matter is ripe for adjudication. For the reasons stated herein, Eakes's Original and Amended Motion for Judgment of Acquittal or, in the alternative, for New Trial, [R. 47; 60], are DENIED.

         The instant motion arises from a jury's conviction of Eakes for willfully depriving an inmate, L.B., of the right be free from cruel and unusual punishment while acting as a deputy at the Fulton County Detention Center (“FCDC”). [R. 37 at 32.] On May 16, 2019, Eakes submitted a Motion for Judgment of Acquittal or, in the alternative, for New Trial, [R. 47]. Pursuant to the Court's Order, [R. 58], Eakes filed an Amended Motion for Judgment of Acquittal or, in the alternative, for New Trial, [R. 60], which included transcript citations, on August 26, 2019.

         DISCUSSION

         Eakes first argues for a judgment of acquittal pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29(c); then, in the alternative, Eakes moves for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33. [R. 60.] The Court will analyze each argument in turn. Following this analysis, the Court will discuss the Remmer hearing held in this case on May 24, 2019, after the Court was made aware of possible juror misconduct.

         I. Motion for Judgment of Acquittal

         In moving for a judgment of acquittal, Eakes's burden is a heavy one: the Court must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, inquiring whether the evidence offered at trial was sufficient to convince a rational trier of fact beyond a reasonable doubt that all elements of the charged crimes have been established. United States v. Graham, 622 F.3d 445, 448 (6th Cir. 2010). However, the Court must not weigh the evidence, consider the credibility of witnesses, or substitute its judgment for that of the jury. United States v. Chavis, 296 F.3d 450, 455 (6th Cir. 2002). The Court affords the Government “the benefit of all inferences which can reasonably be drawn from the evidence, even if the evidence is circumstantial.” United States v. Carter, 355 F.3d 920, 925 (6th Cir. 2004). Furthermore, “[i]t is not necessary that the evidence exclude every reasonable hypothesis except that of guilt.” Id. A judgment will be reversed due to insufficient evidence “only if [the] judgment is not supported by substantial and competent evidence upon the record as a whole.” United States v. Barnett, 398 F.3d 516, 522 (6th Cir. 2005).

         Eakes contends that “based on the testimony at trial, no rational trier of fact could have concluded that Eakes violated L.B.'s constitutional right to not be subjected to excessive force.” [R. 60 at 2.] More specifically, Eakes asserts that he applied force in a good faith effort to maintain and restore discipline because he was acting in accordance with an unwritten “Three Warning Taser Rule” in place at the time of the incident. [Id.] In response, the Government states that Eakes's compliance with a policy is irrelevant to whether he violated L.B.'s Eighth Amendment rights, and, furthermore, the jury heard and saw ample evidence that proved this element beyond a reasonable doubt. [R. 48 at 2.]

         The Court agrees with the Government. The Sixth Circuit has found that a violation of an agency or department policy does not establish a constitutional violation. See Coitrone v. Murray, 642 Fed.Appx. 517, 522 (6th Cir. 2016) (“This court has therefore held that a detective's alleged violations of police department policy were not determinative of whether the detective's use of force was objectively unreasonable.”); Cass v. City of Dayton, 770 F.3d 368, 377 (6th Cir. 2014) (“[t]he Supreme Court has been cautious to draw a distinction between behavior that violates a statutory or constitutional right and behavior that violates an administrative procedure of the agency for which the officials work.”); Walker v. Davis, 643 F.Supp.2d 921, 926 (W.D. Ky. 2009), aff'd, 649 F.3d 502 (6th Cir. 2011) (“the fact that Davis's ‘actions may have violated [the County's] policies' goes to ‘whether he should be disciplined by the local police force' and not to whether he ‘violated the Constitution[.]'”). Also, the Court informed the parties and the jury of this finding in the agreed upon Jury Instructions, specifically Instruction Number 15. [R. 37 at 16 (“proof that a defendant violated policy or acted contrary to training is relevant to your determination of willfulness, but is not relevant to your determination that Eakes violated L.B.'s constitutional rights.”) (emphasis added).] Therefore, the Court finds Eakes's compliance or noncompliance with the unwritten policy to be irrelevant.

         Additionally, Eakes asserts that a rational trier of fact could not find that Eakes had the requisite mental state to commit the crime, i.e., willfulness. [R. 60 at 4.] In detail, Eakes argues that he did not act willfully because he was “following the same three tazer [sic] warning policy that other deputies at the jail were following at the time.” [Id.] In support of this argument, Eakes cites to the testimony of three witnesses from trial. First, Eakes quotes from the testimony of Ava Little, a deputy jailer at FCDC. [R. 55 at 2.] Little testified that there was an unwritten policy at the jail known as the “Three Taser Warning Rule” in which:

Whenever an inmate is acting up and you can't get any control of it, which I've seen a lot of that in mental or coming down off of drugs or something like that, if you can't talk them down, you gave them one Taser warning, then you give them a two Taser warning, and then the three Taser warning, and then you can shoot.

[Id. at 3.] Furthermore, Little implied in her testimony that the taser training she received was less than satisfactory. [Id. at 2-3.] Secondly, Eakes cites to the testimony of Stacy Easley, also a deputy jailer at FCDC. [R. 54 at 8.] He also testified that, under the former jailer, there was a “Three Taser Warning Rule, ” [Id. at 3], and that he was not aware of a written policy on tasing, [Id. at 22]. Lastly, Eakes cites to the testimony of Amber Morgan, a former deputy jailer at FCDC, [R. 52 at 3], who also knew of the “Three Taser Warning Rule.” [Id. at 31.]

         In response, the Government argues that despite the relevant testimony concerning this unwritten policy, there was sufficient evidence presented at trial to allow any rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Eakes acted willfully. [R. 48 at 3.] First, the Government recalls that the written FCDC taser policy was presented before the jury, as well as Eakes's signed acknowledgement of reviewing that policy, which stated that a taser was not to be used in a punitive manner. [R. 48 at 3 (citing Government Exhibits 3 and 4).] Secondly, the Government points to Morgan's testimony in which she stated that employees underwent taser training and she “didn't think that you could tase an inmate just for cursing at you.” [R. 52 at 55.][1] Lastly, the Government cites the video of the incident itself, which it claims “shows that the only reason the defendant re-entered the victim's cell and began tasing him was to punish the victim for cursing at him from behind the locked door . . . .” [R. 48 at 3.] Overall, the Government claims that “[b]ased on his training and the FCDC taser policies, both written and unwritten, the defendant clearly knew that tasing the victim was unlawful under the circumstances, ” which “led the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted willfully.” [Id. at 4.]

         Considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the evidence offered at trial was sufficient to convince a rational trier of fact beyond a reasonable doubt that all elements of the charged crime were established. Once again, the Court notes that the Court must not weigh the evidence, consider the credibility of witnesses, or substitute its judgment for that of the jury. The Court finds that in the testimony, FCDC written policy, and video presented at trial, there was substantial and competent evidence presented upon the record as a whole to ...


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