ERWIN — Former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris’ retrial on a theft-related charge ended in the same result as the first trial.
A jury once again failed to reach a unanimous verdict in Harris’ trial on the charge of theft over $1,000. The jury deliberated for approximately four hours Friday before returning to the courtroom to announce it had deadlocked on a verdict. The jury’s foreman told Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood that the split in the vote could not be resolved with further deliberation.
After court recessed following the announcement of the result, Harris stood up from the defense table and expressed his appreciation for the family members and supporters who had attended the trial.
“It means so much for me to have family and friends here who know the truth,” he said.
It was alleged that Harris ended up in possession of $4,500 in county funds for a pair of vehicles that were donated to the county. As with the first trial, Harris’ defense contended that these vehicles were purchased and that the money from their sale was to be used toward the search-and-rescue training of bloodhounds previously possessed by the county.
Harris’ first trial on the charge ended in early August when its jury could not reach a unanimous verdict. Following that result, District Attorney General Tony Clark told the court that he wanted to retry the case. A new jury for the retrial was set Monday in Unicoi County Criminal Court.
Throughout the course of the five-day retrial, a number of witnesses provided testimony. The state’s case hinged primarily on the testimony of Tom and Lynn Colbaugh, the Unicoi County couple who possessed the vehicles and helped bring in the bloodhounds at the heart of the case. The Colbaughs testified separately that the two vehicles were donated, not sold, to the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department and that no conversations between them and Harris about selling the cars and using the money for bloodhound training ever took place.
Harris testified Thursday that the Colbaughs knew the reason for which they were issued checks for the cars and were aware of an arrangement that would see the funds from the sale of the cars used for the dogs’ training.
Harris said Friday afternoon that he had hoped the jury that hoped the second trial would return a unanimous verdict of not guilty. He described again facing trial on the theft charge as difficult.
“Sitting there listening to everything that was said about me, I can understand why a couple of the jurors voted guilty,” he said.
Still, Harris maintained his innocence.
“I am not guilty,” he said. “I didn’t steal one dime from the county.”
Following the result of the retrial, Clark said he was disappointed in the lack of a verdict as his office presented a strong case. He said Blackwood advised attorneys not to divulge the split in the jurors’ votes. The jury was not polled in court.
“We thought, as last time, that we had put on a good amount of evidence that the defendant in this case, Mr. Harris, was guilty of taking this money,” Clark said. “Part of the jury didn’t agree to that, so as this last time we had a hung jury and this time we had a hung jury.”
Clark said Judge Blackwood has given his office until Jan. 15 to decide if it wants to try Harris on the theft charge for a third time. He said before making this decision, he wants to speak with witnesses and county representatives.
“There comes a point where I feel we could try this a hundred times and we may not get 12 people to agree,” Clark said. “What most people don’t understand is we have to get 12 people to say the person’s guilty. (The defense) just need one to say that he’s not. That’s the way the law is, and that’s the way it should be.”
Harris also faces nine other felony charges. Clark said deciding on how his office will proceed with the theft charge is a priority.
“I think after trying this one twice and putting on the evidence that we had and the witnesses, I don’t see putting the Colbaughs and some of the witnesses through this again, but that’s a decision I’d rather talk to them about and talk with the county officials before I make that decision,” he said.
Clark also quashed talk regarding the expenses of the trials, stating that the only additional expenses involved are mailing letters to jurors, paying them for their service and providing them lunch. He also said changing the location of the trial or bringing in an outside jury are requests the district attorney’s office cannot make. He said the defense must agree to these, adding that if he could move the trial, he would.
“That’s been brought up and they are not going to do that, and there’s obvious reasons why,” Clark said.
As for the other charges he faces, Harris took the same stance as the theft charge.
“I am not guilty of the other charges either,” Harris said. “The truth will come out.”