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7th Cir. Rejects 'Light' Sentence for Violent Sheriff's Deputy

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 02, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A Putnam County, Indiana, sheriff's deputy who was convicted for excessive force won't get off with just a 14-month sentence, the Seventh Circuit ruled last Thursday. Calling the sentence "light," when compared to similar cases, the court demanded that sheriff's deputy Terry Joe Smith be resentenced.

Smith was convicted following a series of violent episodes in 2012, characterized by the court as "violent, gratuitous, and sadistic," which included beating subdued, unresisting, and handcuffed suspects.

Beat The @#*$ Out of Them

Smith's arrest followed reports of extremely violent attacks against compliant or subdued suspects that were so extreme that even fellow officers in his small police department turned against him. In one instance, Smith attacked Cletus Warren, a "known criminal" who was wanted for an outstanding warrant. According to the Seventh Circuit:

All the officers except Smith testified at his trial that they had Warren under control when suddenly Smith punched him in the face with a closed fist, making a sound that two of the officers described as that of a tomato hitting concrete.

A few months later, Smith detained Jeffrey Land, following a domestic dispute. Smith handcuffed Land then "raised Land in the air with Land's body horizontal to the ground, dropped him, and drove his (that is, Smith's) knee into Land's sternum or back, causing him to defecate himself." In both cases, Smith bragged about his violence afterwards.

After an FBI investigation, Smith was convicted by a jury of depriving Warren and Land of their constitutional rights under the color of law.

Fourteen Months Doesn't Seem Like Enough

On appeal, Smith sought to have his conviction overturned, while the government appealed his sentence. In a unanimous opinion authored by Judge Richard Posner, the Seventh Circuit rejected Smith's argument that his fellow officers had provided expert testimony without being certified as expert witnesses.

More importantly, the Court also rejected Smith's relatively brief 14-month sentence, less than half of the 33 to 41 months suggested by federal sentencing guidelines. Fourteen months is much shorter than sentences given in similar cases, the court noted.

While the sentencing judge discussed Smith's "positive and negative characteristics," the record gave little evidence to justify such a short sentence, the Seventh Circuit found.

"In short, does the judge's review of these cases provide any basis for thinking 14 months a proper sentence for Smith? Apart from the judge's reference to anger management and comments on Smith's minor good works in the community, no reason for the light sentence he imposed can be found in the transcript of the sentencing hearing," Posner wrote.

Smith will now be resentenced, likely with a significantly weightier punishment.

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