Former Arkansas Juvenile Detention Officer Pleads Guilty to Assault on Juvenile Detainee
LITTLE ROCK—Cody Hiland, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and Diane Upchurch, Special Agent in Charge of the Little Rock Field Office of the FBI, announced that former White River Juvenile Detention Center officer Jason Benton, 43, of Batesville, pleaded guilty today in federal court to using pepper spray to assault a 15-year-old boy, and for obstructing justice by falsifying an incident report about that assault.
A federal grand jury indicted Benton on May 5, 2017, on five counts related to violations of civil rights at the detention center. On Wednesday, before Senior U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson, Benton pleaded guilty to deprivation of rights under color of law and falsification of records. The White River Juvenile Detention Center is located in Batesville, Arkansas.
“When law enforcement officers violate the law and the public trust, they will be prosecuted and held accountable,” Hiland said. “There will be no exception. This officer broke his oath to uphold the Constitution, injured a juvenile in the process, and then tried to cover it up. That is a crime, and those who commit crimes will be punished accordingly.”
“The Constitution protects all individuals – including those who are incarcerated – from unjustified force by those acting under color of law,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Civil Rights Division. “We will vigorously investigate and prosecute officers who break the public trust in this way.”
According to the guilty plea, Benton instructed the juvenile, who was locked in his cell, to be quiet. Benton then had the juvenile’s cell door opened and ordered the juvenile to come out of his cell with his mattress. The juvenile picked up his mattress as instructed. As the juvenile turned to face the cell door, holding the mattress in both arms, Benton pepper sprayed the juvenile in the face from a distance of a few inches. Benton continued spraying the juvenile as he tried to turn his head away from the spray. Benton then took the juvenile to the ground. Benton covered up the assault when he falsified an incident report, saying that the juvenile had attempted to lunge at him with his fists clenched, when in fact the juvenile had posed no physical threat.
“Law enforcement officers are the cornerstone of our system of justice,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Upchurch said. “Benton failed as a law enforcement officer when he used excessive force and then tried to cover-up the assault. We appreciate the steadfast efforts made by the United States Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division in effectively prosecuting this case.”
Benton is the third former officer to plead guilty to charges stemming from assaults on juvenile detainees at the White River Juvenile Detention Center. On April 26, 2017, former White River supervisors Captain Peggy Kendrick, 44, and Lieutenant Dennis Fuller, 40, pleaded guilty to conspiring to assault juvenile detainees. Kendrick also pleaded guilty to assaulting a 16-year-old girl using pepper spray and for obstructing justice. Kendrick and Fuller await sentencing. Two other former White River Juvenile Detention Center officers, Will Ray, 26, and Thomas Farris, 48, are scheduled to begin trial on August 28, 2018, before Judge Wilson in Little Rock on related charges of conspiring to assault and assaulting juveniles.
The maximum potential penalty for a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242 (Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law) is 10 years’ imprisonment, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine. The maximum potential penalty for a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519 (Falsification of Records in Federal Investigations) is 20 years’ imprisonment, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine.
Benton will be sentenced by Judge Wilson at a later date.
This case is being investigated by the FBI’s Little Rock Field Division and the investigation is ongoing. It is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Peters of the Eastern District of Arkansas and Trial Attorney Samantha Trepel of the Civil Rights Division.
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