ELIZABETHTON – Former Carter County Sheriff John Henson, 67, who served as sheriff for over a decade and was a member of the sheriff's department for over four decades entered an Alford plea of guilty in Criminal Court on Wednesday to a charge of sexual battery.
After leaving the courtroom, Henson said he chose to enter the plea because he did not want to face a jury that might include someone with a grudge over some case he had worked in his long law enforcement career. Henson continues to serve in law enforcement. He is a constable and his conviction will not affect that standing, his attorney said.
Henson said his attorney, Lisa Nidiffer Rice, had tried to talk him into fighting the charge, but Henson said he felt it would be "too big a risk to my reputation."
Rice conceded it would be difficult find jurors in Carter County who did not already know Henson from his 45-year law enforcement career and some who might have been arrested or had family members arrested during his long tenure as sheriff.
Under the terms of the plea bargain, Henson will not serve any time and will be required to pay fines and court costs. Rice said he will be on probation for six months and will have to report twice to make sure he is making his payments.
In terms of sentencing, it is similar to reckless driving," Rice said.
Henson was indicted on the sexual battery charge in February. The indictment said Henson "did commit the act of sexual battery by unlawfully having sexual contact" with a woman on Oct. 16, 2012.
Officers in the sheriff's department who are familiar with the case said the incident happened at a convenience store where the woman worked. In addition to the woman's complaint she had not given consent to Henson's placing his arm on her, the evidence included another witness in the store and the store's security video recording.
Henson has been convicted on simple assault by the Washington County General Sessions Court in June 2009. That case involved a charge that he had given an unwanted hug to a woman at a laundromat on Watauga Road in Johnson City on April 12, 2009. He was working as a police officer for the city of Watauga at the time.
In that conviction, Judge James Nidiffer had given Henson a suspended jail sentence of five months and 29 days. He was placed on unsupervised probation and had to pay a $50 fine. Henson was reinstated as police officer at Watauga, but fired a month later on unrelated matters.
Henson has served as constable since being elected by the Carter County Commission on October 2011 to fill a portion of the unexpired term of Ross Potter, who died from injuries in a car crash.
Henson becomes the second Carter County constable in recent months to have court cases resolved. Barney Brown had a perjury charge dismissed when evidence of an alleged 50-year-old burglary conviction could not be found.