Attorneys seek to separate charges against Unicoi County sheriff

Brad Hicks • Jan 26, 2012 at 4:18 PM

ERWIN — As the date for Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris' initial appearance in Unicoi County Criminal Court approaches, his attorneys have filed a motion seeking separate trials on charges against their client.

The motion requesting the severance of offenses was filed Thursday morning in Unicoi County Criminal Court and was signed by Harris' co-counsel Stacy Street. The motion states charges outlined in the pending indictment against Harris are "separate and distinct." It further states that the offenses are unrelated and are alleged to have occurred on different dates and to have involved different victims.

"The defendant alleges the mere allegation of each offense before a jury will result in extreme prejudice and harm to his constitutional right to a fair and impartial trial," the motion states. "Common sense dictates that a jury would be more inclined to convict the defendant, and would convict on a lesser standard of evidence, upon becoming aware of an additional serious allegation, that it would where the trial is limited to the one offense. Limiting instructions by the court, no matter how sincerely propounded, cannot overcome the well-known vagaries of human nature in this regard."

On Oct. 14, a Unicoi County grand jury returned 10 true bills charging Harris with 10 felonies, including six counts of official misconduct and one count each of tampering with evidence, theft over $1,000, criminal simulation and attempted aggravated assault.

According to a presentment document, which detailed the charges of the indictment and was filed in Unicoi County Criminal Court released the following week, the official misconduct charges stem from Harris allegedly having Unicoi County inmates perform labor on property located at 604 N. Mohawk Drive in Erwin, which was then owned by the sheriff. The presentment states these incidents occurred on several different dates in June and July of 2010.

Harris allegedly committed the offense of criminal simulation in September 2008 by "making or altering a memorandum requesting payment from the county for vehicles valued at $4,500 that were actually donated," according to the presentment. The document states the theft over $1,000 charge stems from Harris' alleged receipt of $4,500 belonging to the county.

In September 2008, Harris committed the offense of tampering with evidence, according to the presentment. This evidence, which the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation says was part of an investigation at that time, involved moonshine, the presentment document states.

The attempted aggravated assault stems from a confrontation between Unicoi County resident J.D. Hensley and Harris following a July 2011 meeting of the county's finance committee. According to the TBI, Harris was charged after attempting to assault Hensley with a deadly weapon. The weapon, according to the presentment document, was a cane carried by Harris.

Harris' attorney Jim Bowman said it is clear from the indictment that several of the charges are unrelated. Bowman said the motion was filed to bring the severance matter before the court and said the motion essentially states that unless cases are related to one another, they should be tried separately.

"We believe that it would clearly be very inappropriate to try all 10 of the charges at the same time," Bowman said.

The motion requests Harris be permitted to be tried separately for "the two offenses for the reasons set forth in the premises of this motion," but it does not specify the two offenses it refers to.

This motion, along with others filed in the case including two prior motions filed by Harris' attorneys requesting the dismissal of the charges against their client, are likely to be considered when Harris appears before Sen. Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood in Unicoi County Criminal Court on Feb. 7.

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