The decision undermines the public’s faith in law enforcement and the judiciary.
Judge Lisa Rice allowed Graybeal to plead to a misdemeanor assault charge for the hard slap he delivered to a handcuffed man in custody at the county’s Detention Center on Nov. 10, 2018. He received 11 months, 29 days of probation.
Graybeal, son of Sheriff Ed Graybeal, had faced the more serious charges of official misconduct and official suppression. His experienced criminal defense attorney, Jim Bowman, worked out the sweetheart deal with 7th District Attorney General Dave Clark’s Office in Oak Ridge. Clark was brought in to handle the case after local District Attorney General Ken Baldwin rightly recused himself from the case, given prosecutors’ long association with the sheriff and his deputies.
A Washington County grand jury had done the right thing by indicting Lt. Graybeal on the felony charges for the slap. That slap was not just an assault on the man in custody, but on the badge Lt. Graybeal is trusted to wear and what it represents to society.
The plea represents the second slap on the wrist Lt. Graybeal has received for the offense. Soon after it occurred, he reported the assault to his supervisors. He was given a written reprimand and was instructed to review the department’s use of force policy. It went no further up the ladder, and no charges were filed at the time.
The whole matter likely would never have come to public light had a copy of a video from another deputy’s body cam not been anonymously delivered to a local television station nearly a year later. That’s unacceptable, and so is the plea deal.
Regardless of Lt. Graybeal’s prior record of service, which his supervisors had described as “stellar,” many in the public always will believe he received preferential treatment. That’s not only because he is in law enforcement but also because he is the sheriff’s son. Only the prosecutors and the judge know whether that to be true.
Because the charges were reduced to a misdemeanor, Lt. Graybeal still has the ability to serve in law enforcement. His status with the Sheriff’s Office was unclear after Monday’s hearing.
The message this deal sends is that despite clear evidence and admission, law enforcement officials sometimes will not be held properly accountable for their conduct. In our view, they should be held to the highest possible standards as they are entrusted to uphold our laws and serve each of us.
When society places a badge and a gun in someone’s hands with a position of authority, we must be able to trust that person will exercise that power responsibly. Assaulting a handcuffed man in a defenseless position was an abuse of that power. This plea deal could be seen as endorsing that behavior.
Many in the public already have a growing distrust of law enforcement and the justice system, and that’s a shame. We know the majority of sworn officers are trustworthy servants who deserve our gratitude for the protections they provide and the risks they take.