GREENFIELD — A familiar campaign issue has cropped up again in the race for Hancock County prosecutor.
As incumbent Michael Griffin and challenger Brent Eaton prepare to square off for a second time in the Republican primary, Eaton is raising concerns about Griffin’s experience in the courtroom.
It’s the same argument Eaton, a private defense attorney, made in 2010 when he and Griffin ran for the office along with then-incumbent Dean Dobbins. At the time, Eaton, who ultimately came in second, accused Griffin of having too little experience to lead the prosecutor’s office.
“It’s just as true now as it was then,” Eaton said. “If there was somebody in there that was, in my opinion, doing a great job, and things were working well, … I wouldn’t run.”
Griffin also is taking a similar tack to one he employed in 2010: Eaton, by virtue of his work as a defense attorney, is ill-equipped to be a prosecutor, Griffin says.
The dueling criticisms have forced both candidates to tout their experience. Griffin argues his office has increased the number of prosecutions and that his role as an elected official requires him to fulfill many other duties outside the courtroom. Eaton points to prior experience as a deputy prosecutor in Marion and Hancock counties and says his workload proves he can do the job.
Griffin, who was a civil attorney before he was elected, contends that since he took office in 2010, he has been steadily building his resume, overseeing more than 200 felony cases as well as spearheading various community initiatives.
“I’ve always said that an elected prosecutor should be working on cases to the extent he or she is not doing things only the prosecutor can do, and that’s been very much my practice,” he said.
Griffin said part of his job is to connect with local leaders, which sometimes requires him to be out of the office and can keep him from appearing in court.
Griffin cited several community initiatives as matters that have required his attention, including starting a Sexual Assault Response Team and networking with school officials to prosecute parents whose children frequently miss school.
Eaton’s criticism of Griffin’s experience since he took office centers on the incumbent’s lack of experience arguing cases before a jury.
“Three years ago, it was true that he had never tried a criminal case to a jury, and that’s true today,” Eaton said.
Griffin worked in tandem with two deputy prosecutors on a murder case that was heard by a judge in 2013. He has not taken a case to a jury trial in Hancock County. Part of the reason, he said, is that few major criminal cases get to that point in Hancock County.
Eaton said that without that experience, Griffin cannot effectively lead the office. The elected prosecutor should be able to advise law enforcement, his staff and the victims of crimes about what can be expected from the court process from personal experience, Eaton said.
“If you have never been in front of a jury or had a substantial number of trials … you can hypothesize what might happen, … but you’re not going to know because you haven’t been there,” he said.
The county has had only one high-profile jury trial – a child neglect case in 2013 – since Griffin took office. Griffin’s chief deputy, Tami Napier, oversaw the case.
Griffin said he decided not to assist Napier because he had prior dealings with the defendant, a former probation officer.
“I thought it would inflame the situation for me to be involved,” he said.
Griffin added that whether a case goes to trial isn’t relevant, because a prosecutor should prepare all cases as though trying them before a jury will be the end result.
Much of that preparation happens behind closed doors, not the courtroom, he said.
“I think Brent’s perspective has a lot to do with his experience as a defense attorney,” he said. “The critic sits back and waits and then makes a criticism and that’s it, and that’s the role of a defense attorney. That’s not really the most effort-filled and tested kind of experience compared with a prosecutor.”
Eaton worked as a deputy prosecutor in Marion County from 2002-2003 before coming to Hancock County to work under former Prosecutor Larry Gossett as a deputy prosecutor from 2003-2006. He ran for prosecutor against Dobbins unsuccessfully in 2006 and has been a defense attorney ever since. The majority of his cases are out of Shelby County.
Griffin criticized Eaton’s work history, saying his years as a defense attorney show he is not committed to prosecuting criminals.
While Eaton was a deputy prosecutor in Hancock County, his work did not include high-level felony cases, Griffin added.
Eaton conceded that he worked primarily on lower-level court cases under Gossett from 2003-06, but he said his caseload at the time was substantial and is now being done by two deputy prosecutors.
Superior Court 2, which comprises mostly drunken-driving cases and misdemeanors, can also provide a prosecutor experience in front of a judge and a jury before he or she moves up to try cases on a higher level, Eaton said.
Eaton criticized Griffin for not taking advantage of those opportunities over the past three years.
“It stands to reason that if someone was really committed and really saw the prosecutor role or the criminal court system as something they wanted to spend their career in that they would have made a real effort to gain the knowledge base,” Eaton said.
Eaton said he has spent the last seven years as a defense attorney taking on high-level felony cases and sees his experience as a defense attorney as an advantage.
If elected prosecutor, Eaton said he will be able to better anticipate how a defense attorney will handle a case and counter those actions.
“I know that my time spent on the other side of the courtroom has helped me to be a substantially better attorney,” he said.
Griffin said he stands by the progress he’s made in his first term, which includes prosecuting 117 felony cases against parents who have failed to pay child support.
His office, he said, has a record of success.
“We’ve won every high-profile case,” Griffin said. “We’ve won nearly every single other case, and we’ve increased the number of cases we’ve taken.”
Eaton said deciding to run for office again was not a commitment he entered into lightly, knowing the strain a campaign can have on both a candidate and the candidate’s family.
But he still thinks he’s better-qualified for the job of prosecutor, and he’s hoping the third time’s the charm.
“That’s ultimately up to the people to decide,” he said.