GREENFIELD — Michael Griffin and Brent Eaton don’t like each other.
That fact was clear as the Republican candidates for Hancock County prosecutor went head to head Friday afternoon during a debate at the Hancock County Public Library.
The dialogue between Griffin, who is running for a second term, and his challenger, a private defense attorney, grew heated just minutes into the debate as the candidates tackled a question about experience in the courtroom.
It was a familiar topic for the candidates who first ran against one another in a three-way race four years ago. In 2010, Eaton attacked Griffin on the basis that Griffin, then a civil attorney, had not tried a criminal case in an Indiana courtroom.
From their opening statements Friday, the candidates revisited the issue, with Griffin detailing the experience he has gained while leading the office during his first term and Eaton calling that experience insufficient to be re-elected.
Griffin told the audience his office operates as a well-oiled machine, and that over the past 3½ years, he and his deputies have won every high-profile case as well as many that never made headlines. Griffin said his track record during his first term makes him the obvious choice for voters.
“The other choice would break up a high-functioning and successful team,” he said.
Eaton repeatedly drilled the point that Griffin still has not tried a case before a local jury. He said that while Griffin has brought well-intentioned initiatives to the county, he has failed in a prosecutor’s most basic duty.
“Makes about as much sense as a sheriff who’s never had an arrest,” Eaton said. “It’s actually worse than that.”
As a rebuttal, Griffin described his experience trying a murder case before a judge in 2013, adding that he has also tried multiple cases before federal panels similar in structure to juries. Griffin, an Army Reservist, spent six months serving as part of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
Throughout the debate, both candidates accused one another of lying.
As they discussed their support from law enforcement, Eaton said public endorsements for him could make officers’ work with the current prosecutor’s office strained, so he hasn’t asked for any.
That isn’t true, Griffin told the crowd.
“It’s not that he’s never asked for one; it’s just that he’s never gotten one,” Griffin said.
When Griffin spoke about the increasing workload at the office, Eaton called him disingenuous, citing statistics that suggest more criminal cases were filed annually in past years than are being filed now.
Griffin countered that his office has filed substantially more high felony cases, citing a rise in sex crimes charges as an example.
How to best address victims’ needs has also been a hot-button issue throughout the campaign. Griffin told the packed room Friday his office works hard to advocate for those who have been targeted by criminals, adding he is also pursuing options for the development of a child advocacy center.
Eaton expressed concern that victims are not receiving updates about the progress of their court cases, saying he has personally heard from those who say victims are falling through the cracks.
Griffin responded simply, “That’s not happening.”
Eaton has promised to hire a victim advocate if elected, a decision Griffin countered lies with the county council, not the prosecutor.
One of the most controversial cases of Griffin’s term occurred in 2013, when a Greenfield woman fatally shot her husband, who she said was planning a violent attack on law enforcement.
Griffin ultimately chose not to file charges against her. Friday, he defended that decision, saying he was sure the woman’s actions saved lives.
“I will tell you many road officers were very glad about the decision I made and congratulated me,” he said. “They would have been the ones who would have gone down the stairs and faced that weapon.”
Eaton said the best approach would have been for Griffin to convene a grand jury, allowing the public to give some input before making a final decision about whether to file charges.
“It is something that clearly was a difficult decision but it’s also something I think should have been given an open hearing,” he said.
Griffin discounted Eaton’s views on how cases should be prosecuted, pointing out Eaton has spent the past seven years working as a defense attorney.
“Voting for a defense attorney is like the chickens voting for Col. Sanders,” he said. “It doesn’t work.”
Eaton responded by reminding voters he worked as a deputy under former Hancock County Prosecutor Larry Gossett.
“I’ve been a prosecutor longer than you have,” he told Griffin.
During his closing statement, Eaton reiterated the point that has been the cornerstone of his campaign – his belief that Griffin has not fulfilled his duties.
“Someone can win an election, but that does not make them a prosecutor,” he said. “I’m asking you to put a prosecutor back in the prosecutor’s office.”
Griffin invited voters to look at his record and consider the work he could continue to do if re-elected.
“This really is a choice between moving forward and moving backward,” he said.