ERWIN — More than seven months ago, a Unicoi County grand jury returned 10 true bills charging then-Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris with 10 felonies. Monday morning, his trial on two of those charges is set to begin.
Harris is set to appear before Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood to begin trial on the charges of criminal simulation and theft over $1,000. The months since Harris was initially charged to Monday’s trial have seen B l a c k w o o d ’s appointment to oversee the trial, motionsrequesting the dismissal of Harris’ charges, an additional felony charge levied against Harris, Harris’ resignation from office and the appointment of an interim sheriff.
On Oct. 14, a grand jury returned 10 true bills charging Harris with six counts of official misconduct, and one count each of tampering with evidence, criminal simulation, theft over $1,000 and attempted aggravated assault.
The day the indictments were handed down, District Attorney General Tony Clark said the charges stemmed from a pair of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation investigations — one initiated in 2009 and the other in 2010 — that overlapped and were subsequently combined. A TBI release issued that day stated the agency began the investigation into allegations of misconduct made against Harris in September 2010 after being requested by the 1st Judicial District attorney general’s office.
Clark said at the time that the TBI presented the case to the grand jury and that subpoenaed witnesses presented testimony.
Per a decision made by Criminal Court Judge Lynn Brown, Harris was not arrested following the indictments and a criminal summons was issued in lieu of arrest, Clark said.
According to the TBI release, the official misconduct charges are the result of several occurrences in June and July of 2010 when Harris allegedly had Unicoi County inmates perform labor on private property owned by him.
According to the TBI, Harris tampered with evidence in September 2008 by altering or destroying evidence that was part of an ongoing investigation at that time. A presentment document filed in Unicoi County Criminal Court said this evidence involved moonshine.
Harris’ charge of attempted aggravated assault was the result of a confrontation with county resident J.D. Hensley following a July 2011 meeting of the Unicoi County Commission’s Finance Committee, according to the presentment. According to the TBI, Harris was charged after attempting to assault Hensley with a deadly weapon, which was identified as a cane carried by Harris.
The two charges Harris will be tried on beginning Monday are related to vehicles donated to the sheriff’s department that Harris allegedly sought and received payment for from the county. The presentment states Harris committed the offense of criminal simulation in September 2008 by requesting payment from the county for vehicles valued at $4,500 that were in actuality donated. The theft over $1,000 charge resulted from Harris receiving the $4,500 belonging to the county, according to the presentment .
Harris’ legal counsel previously filed a pair of motions seeking the dismissal of the charges. In the first motion, the attorneys alleged Clark interfered with the composition and independence of the grand jurors. The second subsequently filed motion alleged grand jury members and the foreman had not signed the presentment document charging Harris when the document was delivered to the Criminal Court.
On. Oct. 24, the same day the second motion seeking the dismissal of the charges was filed, the County Commission was set to discuss the possible initiation of ouster proceedings against Harris, but put discussion of Harris’ fate on hold when County Attorney Doug Shults advised commissioners that the state attorney general’s office was looking into civil actions relative to Harris’ removal from office.
In November, Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark appointed Blackwood to oversee the Criminal Court actions involving Harris. At a Feb. 7 arraignment hearing, Harris pleaded not guilty to all 10 of the charges against him. Blackwood dismissed the defense’s motions seeking dismissal of the charges, but did grant the request to sever Harris’ charges. Clark was given the option of choosing what charges would be tried first, with Clark choosing the criminal simulation and theft over $1,000 charges.
The week after this arraignment hearing, a Unicoi County grand jury returned a true bill charging Harris with an 11th felony, an additional count of official misconduct. According to the presentment document filed in Criminal Court, in November, Harris had a Sheriff’s Department employee use departmental equipment and supplies to prepare a letter soliciting funds to pay his attorneys’ fees during that employee’s working hours. A Dec. 10 trial date was set for this latest charge.
The office of Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. eventually issued a statement on Feb. 29, one day before Harris’ resignation, which stated that the office had decided not to pursue ouster proceedings against Harris.
On March 1, Harris submitted his letter of resignation to the county, citing ongoing health problems due to injuries suffered in an August 2010 fall from the roof of the Unicoi County Jail. Harris made no mention of the felony charges he is facing in the resignation letter. The County Commission unanimously accepted Harris’ resignation at a called meeting held on March 9.