By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – FBI officials decline to talk about their investigation of Christopher Gary Hughes of Tupelo, until recently a decorated state trooper.
Hughes, 41, is no longer with the Mississippi Highway Patrol, spokesman Warren Strain says.
When and how he and MHP parted ways isn’t clear, but a September 2012 trooper newsletter lists him among the top DUI arresters.
Hughes’ name entered the headlines last week in connection with a federal accusation that “under color of law,” meaning while he was a law enforcement officer, he “willfully” deprived a woman of her constitutional rights to protection against unreasonable searches and seizure and to be free from excessive force.
The incident allegedly occurred five years ago.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said his office notified MHP immediately after a jail incident on Oct. 14, 2007, involving a woman arrested by Hughes.
The federal complaint against Hughes claims the woman was thrown onto a concrete floor, her face struck against the floor, her head stomped against the floor and she was kicked “without legal justification.”
Johnson said his office turned over a video to MHP, along with other information.
The allegations never came to the District Attorney’s Office and never went to a Lee County grand jury, say attorneys in that office at the time.
They have no explanations for why.
The clock also was ticking on this charge.
In Mississippi, prosecutors have a two-year statute of limitations on most crimes, although a few more serious, such as aggravated assault, have five years for charges to come forward.
John Marshall Alexander, chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office criminal division in Oxford, says the statute of limitations on bringing criminal charges alleging civil rights violations is five years.
Hughes was officially charged two days before the five-year mark.
MHP’s Strain says his agency turned the case over to the FBI, but he declined to say when.
Monday, FBI spokeswoman Deborah Madden didn’t offer much. “The FBI does not comment on ongoing investigations,” she said.
She declined to elaborate on the phrase “ongoing investigations.”
Hughes’ legal co-counsels Jason Herring of Tupelo and Tony Farese of Ashland “are not at liberty to comment” any more than to say they, too, “are in the process of investigating” the claim against their client, Herring says.
But since the Daily Journal published a story last week about the charge against Hughes, other complaints against him appear in development – all alleging use of “excessive force” as a trooper.
During the 2012 legislative session, House Bill 1587 authorized the state of Mississippi to pay $23,000 effective July 1 for the federal lawsuit by William T. Brann against the Mississippi Highway Patrol and then-officer Chris Hughes.
Jan Schaefer, an Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman, said the money is the state’s settlement on Brann and includes his hospital bills, attorneys fee and other creditor claims.
Brann, of Belden, was 24 the night of Dec. 31, 2007, when he was stopped on Briar Ridge Road in Lee County by a state trooper. Soon after, other troopers arrived for backup, one identified as Chris Hughes.
In his subsequent federal lawsuit, Brann alleged that after he was placed under arrest, he was struck on the left side of the head, forced to the ground and handcuffed.
Then, he claimed, he was struck repeatedly in the head, causing multiple severe injuries, including fractures to the skull and face, damage to both eye sockets, brain damage, and multiple bruises, lacerations and contusions.
The lawsuit alleged it “is a known fact” that Hughes “has a history of excessive force” and that MHP “was negligent” in continuing to employ him and put him in a position of power and/or authority.
Hughes’ defense counsel responded that Brann attempted to evade an MHP checkpoint and then assaulted the officers. The other allegations were denied.
In Hughes’ own report to the Department of Public Safety, he admits to striking Brann with a flashlight and shooting him with a Taser, which is when Hughes said Brann fell face-first onto the ground. He also wrote that he “activated” the Taser several more times to subdue Brann.
Brann’s hospital record showed his blood alcohol level at 0.19, which is above the 0.18 legal intoxication level, as well as the presence of three different drugs in his system.
Although the court dismissed a later expanded complaint, the document claimed that 10 months after the incident, MHP troopers “withheld facts” from a Lee County grand jury, which resulted in Brann’s indictment on a simple assault charge.
Ultimately, a circuit judge dismissed the indictment in May 2011 contingent upon Brann’s guilty plea to a DUI charge from the 2007 incident. Brann did so, was fined $836.50 and ordered to attend the state’s alcohol education program classes.
In May 2012, Brann’s lawsuit was settled just a few weeks before it was due for trial.
Five months later, the federal charge emerged against Hughes.
Although Hughes’ counsel isn’t talking, it’s common practice at the U.S. Attorney’s Office to notify someone that he’s under investigation and invite him to hear what the government has.
Sometimes, the person under investigation agrees to cooperate, take a polygraph and provide information about others who may have been involved.
If the government is satisfied with the cooperation, defense counsel usually negotiates a deal for a charge or “information” with lesser punishment.
The U.S. District Court case file shows that if convicted on the charge, Hughes faces up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine or both.
Fourteen days after the information against Hughes was signed, the record does not show any other action.