Ex-sheriff’s trial on official misconduct set for July 8

Brad Hicks • Jan 29, 2013 at 9:20 PM

ERWIN — Former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris is set to once again face trial in Unicoi County Criminal Court in July, this time on a single charge of official misconduct.

At a Tuesday afternoon hearing in Washington County Criminal Court, District Attorney General Tony Clark and Harris’ legal counsel briefly discussed this matter before Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, who was appointed in November to oversee Harris’ court proceedings.

The trial on the official misconduct charge is set to begin on July 8 in Unicoi County Criminal Court. The charge is the result of a Feb. 16 session of a Unicoi County grand jury.

According to the presentment document filed in Unicoi County Criminal Court, it is alleged that in November 2011 Harris, acting as sheriff, had an employee of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department use departmental supplies and equipment to prepare a letter soliciting funds to pay his defense attorneys’ fees during the employee’s working hours.

In October 2011, 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 theft over $1,000, criminal simulation, attempted aggravated assault and tampering with evidence.

On Feb. 7, Harris appeared in Unicoi County Criminal Court, where he entered a not guilty plea to these 10 charges. A grand jury indicted Harris on the latest official misconduct charge the following week.

In April, Harris’ legal co-counsel, Stacy Street, entered a not guilty plea on the latest charge on Harris’ behalf. A Dec. 10 trial date was set at this hearing, but the trial on the official misconduct charge did not occur then.

Harris’ trial on the theft over $1,000 and criminal simulation charges ended in early August with the jury failing to reach a unanimous verdict. During the course of the trial, Blackwood dismissed the criminal simulation charge.

Clark elected to retry Harris on the theft charge, opting to use the Dec. 10 date originally designated to begin trial on the official misconduct charge for the retrial.

The retrial ended on Dec. 14, with the jury once again deadlocked on a verdict. Clark announced earlier this month that his office would not seek a third trial on the theft charge.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Clark filed a motion to dismiss the theft charge and told Blackwood his office next wanted to prosecute Harris on the single count of official misconduct. Following the hearing, Clark said he chose to next prosecute this charge next due to its lack of complexity compared to Harris’ other charges and it being the most recent charge.

“That case seems to be the most simple, straight-forward,” Clark said. “Not a lot of witnesses involved in that case, and I don’t think it would be one that would be drawn out, one of these five-day type hearings.”

Harris was not present at Tuesday’s hearing. Harris’ attorney, Jim Bowman, told Blackwood that the defense may file a pretrial motion concerning the case. Blackwood said that a hearing date for motions may be scheduled prior to the trial.

In February, Blackwood granted a motion filed by Harris’ defense to sever his charges stemming from the October 2011 grand jury session. The six counts of official misconduct will be tried together and the remaining charges will be tried separately. Because of this, Clark said Harris potentially faces at least four more trials.

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