ERWIN — Former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris is set to once again face trial today at 9 a.m. in Unicoi County Criminal Court on a theft-related charge, one of the 10 felonies a grand jury indicted him on in October 2011.
This marks the second time this year Harris has been tried on the charge of theft over $1,000. A mistrial was declared in the first trial after a jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.
In that trial, which began in late July and ended Aug. 2, Harris was tried on charges of theft over $1,000 and criminal simulation. It is alleged Harris sought and received $4,500 in county funds to pay for two vehicles that were actually donated to the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department in September 2008.
While District Attorney General Tony Clark said in his opening statement that the prosecution intended to prove the vehicles were donated to the county but Harris still ended up in possession of the $4,500, Harris’ legal defense stated that it would show the $4,500 was a portion of the funding that was to go to the care of two bloodhounds previously purchased by county resident Tom Colbaugh to serve as search and rescue dogs for the UCSD.
Over the course of the four-day trial, a number of documents were presented and more than a dozen witnesses provided testimony, including testimony from Harris himself. Much of the trial’s testimony also came from Colbaugh and his wife, Lynn Colbaugh, who purchased the bloodhounds and possessed the vehicles at the center of the theft charge.
The Colbaughs testified the two vehicles were donated to the county, leading them to question why checks were issued for them. The Colbaughs also testified Harris had instructed them to cash the checks totaling $4,500 and return the money to him, and they stated that Harris made no mention of bloodhound training or care in regard to the money. Harris contradicted this in his testimony.
During the course of the trial, Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood stated the jury would not be considering the criminal simulation charge. According to the trial’s transcript, Blackwood issued a directed verdict on this charge.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the court as a matter of law has directed a verdict in favor of the defendant on that charge,” Blackwood said to the jury according to the transcript. “He’s not ... the court has granted a directed verdict. He is not charged with criminal simulation. You will not be considering that charge.”
After the hung jury was declared, Clark stated that he wanted to retry the case.
Harris was scheduled to begin trial Monday on a charge of official misconduct, which was the result of a Feb. 16 grand jury session. Clark said he instead wanted to use the date to retry Harris on the theft charge. Clark previously said attorneys must once again go through the process of selecting a new jury, which is expected to make up much of the trial’s first day.
In October 2011, a Unicoi County grand jury charged Harris with criminal simulation, theft over $1,000, attempted aggravated assault, tampering with evidence and six counts of official misconduct. Harris pleaded not guilty to these charges at a Feb. 7 arraignment hearing. The week after this hearing, a grand jury returned a true bill charging Harris with an additional count of official misconduct.
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 in the letter. The Unicoi County Commission unanimously accepted Harris’ resignation at a March 9 meeting.