Kent Harris in previous court appearance with his attorneys. (Press file photo)
ERWIN — The trial of former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris on multiple counts of official misconduct will begin on July 8 as planned, as the judge overseeing the case has denied a motion from the defense seeking dismissal of the charges.
According to an order from Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood filed Thursday morning in Unicoi County Criminal Court, a motion previously filed by Harris' defense attorney Jim Bowman has been denied.
"It appearing to the court that the Motion to Dismiss Counts 1-6 of the presentment are not well taken and should be denied; it is therefore ordered by the Court that the Motion to Dismiss Counts 1-6 is denied," Blackwood's order states.
On June 5, Bowman filed a motion in Unicoi County Criminal Court seeking dismissal of the six official misconduct charges Harris is set to be tried on beginning on July 8. Bowman stated in this motion that the state should be barred from prosecuting the charges because, per state law, they should be considered misdemeanors and fall outside the state's one-year statute of limitations to prosecute misdemeanors.
In this motion, Bowman cited Tennessee Code Annotated 41-3-106, which states: "No sheriff, jailer or other person responsible for the care and custody of inmates housed in a county or municipal jail or workhouse may employ, require or otherwise use any inmate housed in the jail or workhouse to perform labor that will or may result directly or indirectly in the sheriff's, jailer's or other person's personal gain, profit or benefit or in gain, profit or benefit to a business partially or wholly owned by the sheriff, jail or other person."
Bowman stated in his motion that this TCA states those convicted of violating it for the first time have committed a misdemeanor. The motion states that because of this, prosecution of Harris' charges is barred by the state's one-year statute of limitations to prosecute misdemeanors.
The official misconduct charges are six of the 10 felonies a Unicoi County grand jury indicted Harris on in October 2011. It is alleged that then-sheriff Harris committed the offenses on various dates between June 23, 2010, and July 19, 2010, by having county inmates work on property he owned on Mohawk Drive in Erwin.
On June 10, District Attorney General Tony Clark filed an answer to Bowman's motion in Unicoi County Criminal Court. In it, Clark stated that Harris was charged with the official misconduct counts under TCA 39-16-402, an official misconduct charge that pertains to public servants who commit an offense for benefit or to harm others, and not the state code cited by Bowman. Clark states in his answer that charges under TCA 39-16-402 are classified as Class E felonies.
"Therefore, defendant's argument that counts 1-6 should be dismissed on the basis that the alleged offenses are barred by the statute of limitation, is without merit, and not applicable to these counts," Clark stated in his answer.
Harris has faced trial twice, once on the charges of theft over $1,000 and criminal, and he was subsequently retired on the theft charge. Both of these trials ended with hung juries in August and December, respectively, as jurors in both failed to reach unanimous verdicts.