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Former Unicoi County sheriff Harris trial still set for July — on different set of charges

June 5th, 2013 10:00 am by Brad Hicks

Former Unicoi County sheriff Harris trial still set for July — on different set of charges

Former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris and attorney Jim Bowman listen as District Attorney General Tony Clark conveys his wishes to retry Harris on the theft charge he was on trial for in this August 2012 file photo.

ERWIN — Former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris was set to face trial on a single count of official misconduct beginning July 8, but a motions hearing in the case that was originally scheduled for Monday has been canceled and Harris will first face trial on other charges. 

District Attorney General Tony Clark said Tuesday that he and Harris’ defense attorney, Jim Bowman, previously discussed the matter of trying Harris on other charges prior to trying him on the single official misconduct charge. Clark said both sides were agreeable to this, and Clark previously contacted the office of Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, who is overseeing Harris’ criminal court proceedings, to ask about the change. Clark said he was advised by Blackwood’s office that this could be done, as long as Harris was tried on the same offense. 

Now, beginning July 8, Harris will instead be tried in Criminal Court on six counts of official misconduct, six of the 10 felonies a county grand jury charged Harris with in October 2011. It is alleged that on several dates in June and July of 2010, then-sheriff Harris had county inmates perform labor on property he owned at 604 N. Mohawk Drive in Erwin.

Clark said Blackwood’s office has advised attorneys that if motions in the trial are filed prior to the trial date, a motions hearing will be scheduled. 

Harris was set to be tried on one count of official misconduct in July. It is alleged that in November 2011, then-sheriff Harris directed an sheriff’s department employee to use departmental supplies and equipment to prepare a letter soliciting funds to pay Harris’ defense attorneys’ fees during the employee’s working hours. Harris was indicted on this charge in February 2012.

In October 2011, a month prior to this alleged act, a grand jury indicted Harris on 10 felonies, including the six counts of official misconduct he will now be tried on and one count each of theft over $1,000, criminal simulation, attempted aggravated assault and tampering with evidence. 

Late last month, Bowman filed two motions in Criminal Court seeking dismissal of Harris’ most-recent official misconduct charge. In the one motion, Bowman cites “vagueness” in the presentment document filed in Criminal Court and said the document fails to state an offense. 

In the other motion, Bowman alleges “selective prosecution,” as he alleges that current Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley carried out an action similar to what Harris is charged with just months after Harris’ March 2012 resignation. The motion said that on June 19, Hensley, who was named interim sheriff after Harris’ resignation, directed a sheriff’s department employee or employees to assist in preparing and typing an affidavit from former Carter County sheriff John Henson. Henson’s statement was used as a political campaign advertisement as Hensley sought the office in the August election. 

A motions hearing on these matters scheduled for Monday has been canceled due to Harris being first tried on other charges. Clark said he spoke with Bowman about trying Harris on other charges prior to Bowman’s filing of these motions. Clark also said the trial on the official misconduct charge Harris was indicted on in February 2012 has been continued, and he would file answers to Bowman’s motions if the trial on this charge moves forward.

“As far as the motions, they will not need to be heard until that trial takes place,” Clark said. 

Harris has already faced trial twice, first on the charges of criminal simulation and theft over $1,000. That trial ended in August with a hung jury, as jurors failed to reach a unanimous verdict. Harris was subsequently retried on the theft charge, and this trial ended in December with a hung jury when jurors again failed to reach a unanimous verdict. Read more on those trials here.

Bowman could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

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