How much is too much in case against former deputy?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

More than three years ago, the community responded with shock at some terrible and damning news hitting the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department.

Deputy T.J. Smith, a three-year veteran of the department who also served on the Greencastle City Council, was accused by the FBI and federal prosecutors of four felony counts of violations of civil rights under color of law — police brutality in layman’s terms.

As the case unfolded, the shock continued as the full viciousness of the crimes came to light, including punching a man in the face when his arms were already restrained and kneeing a man in the back so hard he defecated himself.

In the end, the former deputy was found guilty of two of the four charges, but the shock wasn’t over just yet. During Smith’s sentencing hearing in December 2014, Judge William T. Lawrence read off the crimes of which Smith had been found guilty, as well as citing similar cases in which federal precedents had already been established.

That’s when Judge Lawrence dropped his bombshell — a 14-month sentence for Smith in spite of the fact that the advisory sentence was 33 to 41 months.

The bombshells from Lawrence weren’t over, either. A little more than a year later, with Smith already free having served less than a year, the judge seemingly thumbed his nose at the Seventh District Court of Appeals, refusing to resentence Smith to additional time and only “clarifying” his original sentence.

The case returned to the Court of Appeals last month and is now likely coming back to Indiana’s Southern District — albeit with Lawrence removed from the case.

The Appeals Court panel, still unhappy with Lawrence’s sentence, is looking for a stiffer sentence for Smith — one that is more in line with the precedents established by past decisions in similar cases.

Unfortunately, this is the point at which the importance of order and precedent in federal courts clashes with the rights of one man to pay his debt to society and move on.

It is the opinion of this publication that in light of the crimes Smith committed against the people of this community, his sentence was too lenient.

On the other hand, is now, more than 18 months after he was released, the time to return Smith to prison?

Sending him back seems more vindictive than corrective at this point.

In a position of trust, Smith needed to be held to a higher standard than your run-of-the-mill criminal. Judge Lawrence quite simply did not do that, handing Smith a sentence that was just 45 percent of the minimum standard in such cases and less than a quarter of the prosecutor’s recommendation.

Unfortunately, Judge Lawrence twice shirked his duties to bestow a fair sentence that was consistent with federal norms, thus making the burden on the new judge even heavier.

On one side, the new judge has the expectations not only of the Seventh District Court of Appeals but of judges and prosecutors nationwide who look to the precedents set by cases such as this for guidance in doing their jobs.

For prosecutors, a 14-month sentence will stick out like sore thumb as they argue for tougher penalties against police officers who abuse their power.

Conversely, the new judge may be forced to take a man who is out of prison, believing he has paid his debt to society, and send him back, all because the wheels of justice turn a bit too slowly.

It’s hard to imagine how, with clear conscience, Smith did commit the crimes that he did. But it’s also hard to imagine how, with clear conscience, a judge could send him back to prison with the time that has passed.

At this point, Lawrence’s actions are on trial more than Smith’s. Perhaps the judge should be the one facing further punishment.