DA says no to third trial for former sheriff Harris on theft charge

Brad Hicks • Jan 9, 2013 at 9:11 PM

ERWIN — Former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris will not go before a third jury on a charge of felony theft.

After two previous trials in Unicoi County Criminal Court in which the juries failed to reach unanimous verdicts, District Attorney General Tony Clark said Wednesday there will not be another trial.

Clark announced that his office will not retry Harris on the charge of theft over $1,000. Clark said the decision was made after he conferred with other prosecutors and senior staff in his office, and the decision took into account the input of Unicoi County officials, as the county was the alleged victim in the case, the results of the two trials, input from state witnesses and costs associated with the trials.

Clark also said the prosecution put on all of the evidence it had in both trials, and he does not feel a third trial would end with a different result.

“It has nothing to do with public opinion, it has nothing to do with letters to the editor, or anything of that nature,” Clark said. “It’s just the fact that I talked with Unicoi County, some officials there. They are the alleged victims in that case. It’s their feeling that this should not be tried again. In talking with my witnesses, the Colbaughs and some of the other officials who testified, they have endured this twice, and I don’t think the outcome on this particular case, if it’s tried again, would be different.”

The theft over $1,000 charge was one of 10 felonies a Unicoi County grand jury charged Harris with in October 2011. It was alleged Harris pocketed $4,500 in county money for two vehicles that were donated to the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department in September 2008. In both trials, Harris’ defense contended these vehicles were purchased, with the money from their sale to be used for the training of bloodhounds previously possessed by the county.

Testimony was provided by a number of witnesses during the trials, including Harris himself and Tom and Lynn Colbaugh, the Unicoi County couple who possessed the vehicles and helped bring in the bloodhounds at the center of the case.

After Harris’ first trial ended in early August with the jury failing to reach a unanimous verdict, Clark opted to retry Harris. The second trial ended Dec. 14, with the jury once again deadlocked. Following the trial, Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, who was previously appointed to oversee Harris’ Criminal Court proceedings, gave Clark’s office until Jan. 15 to decide if it would prosecute Harris for a third time.

Clark said that he and Harris’ defense attorneys assumed a hearing to announce the decision was to be held on Jan. 15 in Criminal Court, but they recently learned that was not the case and Blackwood was not scheduled to be in Unicoi County on that date. He said the Jan. 15 date was simply a deadline for the retrial decision.

Clark said he learned Blackwood was scheduled to be in Washington County Criminal Court on Wednesday and that Harris’ defense attorneys would be present on an unrelated case. With all present, the decision not to retry Harris was made before Blackwood in Jonesborough on Wednesday, Clark said.

Blackwood set a hearing for Jan. 29 in Washington County Criminal Court, at which time Clark said he intends to file paperwork to dismiss the theft charge. Clark also said a decision on which of Harris’ charges will be tried next and future trial dates will be discussed at that hearing.

Clark also addressed criticism directed at his office by some who said he has a “personal vendetta” against Harris, adding that this criticism did not play into the decision not to retry Harris on theft charge. Clark said it is his job to do what is in the “best interest of the public.”

“I don’t make decision based on letters to the editor. I don’t do that,” Clark said. “I know people are entitled to their opinion, and I’m all for free speech. But my decision not to try this case again had nothing to do with people writing letters or giving comments. It was based on the law, the facts and common sense. And I do not have and have not had a personal vendetta against Kent Harris.”

Harris still faces one count of tampering with evidence, one count of attempted aggravated assault and seven counts of official misconduct, with one of these counts being the result of a February 2011 grand jury session. Harris stated in an email sent late Wednesday afternoon that he is “not guilty” of any of the charges against him and this will be proven in future trials.

“I feel the justice system through the honorable service of our peers whom serve as jurors worked and justice now in this case has came,” Harris wrote. “I have been keeping all involved in my prayers, a lot of people have been misled and not been told the truth and the whole story but, as in these first two cases, I have full faith in our justice system and that the truth will prevail in the end.”

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