Kent Harris trials cost county in neighborhood of $20,000

Brad Hicks • Dec 18, 2012 at 10:33 PM

ERWIN — Members of the public and Unicoi County officials alike have been curious about the costs involved with twice trying former sheriff Kent Harris on a theft-related charge.

On Tuesday, Unicoi County Circuit Court Clerk Darren Shelton provided cost information to county commissioners gathered at the courthouse for a work session. Shelton said each of the trials have cost in the neighborhood of $8,000 to $10,000.

Harris’ first trial on the charge of theft over $1,000 ended in early August and was declared a mistrial after the jury that heard the case was unable to render a unanimous verdict. District Attorney General Tony Clark opted to retry Harris on the charge. The second trial wrapped up Friday when a new jury came to the same conclusion as the jury that heard the first trial — it deadlocked on a verdict.

According to his estimates, Shelton said Harris’ retrial cost the county around $13,800 and he provided a breakdown of this cost. Before a trial begins, jury orientation takes place. This is when prospective jurors who will eventually make up a trial’s jury panel are brought in.

Shelton said for a typical case, around 125 people are brought in for jury orientation. However, he said Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, who oversaw both of Harris’ trials, requested that extra people be brought in due to it being a high-profile case. Shelton said 550 people were in brought in at the last jury orientation.

Jurors are paid $11 per day for their service, and this applies to all of those brought in for orientation. The $6,050 to pay the prospective jurors made up the highest percentage of the estimated cost of the retrial.

The 550 brought in for orientation are then whittled down to about 300 after some are excused. These 300 people are brought in on the first day of the trial and, again, are paid $11 for being there. The cost for this was another $3,300.

But there are costs involved before it even gets to this point, Shelton said, as the 550 potential jurors summoned for orientation are mailed summonses. Shelton said with a postage rate of 45 cents, the cost for this was about $250.

Once the 12-person jury, along with two alternates, is seated, they are each paid $11 for each day the trial lasts. Harris’ retrial lasted for five days, meaning the service costs paid to the 14 people seated was a little more than $600.

Lunch also was purchased for the jurors. Shelton said this cost was around $200 per day, which added up to a cost of approximately $1,000 for the five-day trial.

Shelton said travel expenses for witnesses, including hotels for those who needed to stay in the area throughout the duration of the trial, was about $813. He said additional sheriff’s department officers were brought in for the retrial to provide enhanced security. Shelton estimated paying these officers at $12 an hour, the expense for this was around $1,440 for the five-day retrial.

Now that the trial has ended, Shelton said his office will mail payment checks to the 550 people brought in for orientation. That will cost roughly another $250, he said.

“There’s a lot of hidden costs that people don’t realize, the postage, the food, the witnesses if we have to pay for them to stay, just some of those things,” Shelton said.

Shelton said Harris’ first trial was slightly less costly due, in part, to it lasting only four days. Still, he said the total cost was in the $8,000 to $10,000 range.

Shelton previously requested $20,000 from the county for this fiscal year to budget the costs of the two trials. Harris still faces nine other felony charges and it is not yet known when the other cases may be tried. If other charges are tried this year, Shelton said his office will need to request a budget amendment to pay for the trials.

“What I told them, I said ‘I know it’s going to cost us $10,000 a pop. We’ve got two coming up. Give me $20,000 and, if anymore comes up, you’re going to have to give me the money,’” Shelton said.

After the result of Harris’ retrial was announced Friday, Blackwood gave Clark’s office until Jan. 15 to decide if it will try Harris for a third time on the theft charge. Clark said Monday that while he wants to discuss this with the alleged victims and witnesses before making a firm decision, he is leaning toward not retrying Harris on the charge and moving forward with prosecuting other charges.

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