ERWIN — Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris’ legal counsel filed a motion in Unicoi County Criminal Court late Monday morning requesting the charges against the sheriff be dismissed due to “a defect in the institution of the prosecution.”
The motion was filed by Harris’ attorney Jim Bowman, who alleges District Attorney General Tony Clark interfered with the independence and composition of the grand jury that returned 10 true bills charging Harris with 10 felony charges.
The motion alleges that when the grand jury convened Oct. 14 for the purpose of considering evidence regarding Harris’ alleged criminal activity, Clark questioned the members’ willingness or ability to serve on the grand jury in light of the specific case that was to be considered.
“This questioning did not take place before the court, but rather within the grand jury room. Whether such questioning was sanctioned by the court is not known,” the motion said.
The motion alleges that as a result of this questioning, two grand jury members were dismissed and three additional citizens were then impaneled as grand jurors.
Within a few minutes, one of these jurors was advised by the Unicoi County Circuit Court Clerk that her services would not be needed because Clark did not want her to serve and she was replaced with another citizen, according to the motion.
The motion, which was signed by Bowman and co-counsel Stacy Street, said the grand jury is an independent body that is independent of the court and the district attorney general, citing TCA 69-3-115.
The motion also cites Rule 6(c) of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, which governs the disqualification of grand jurors for interest.
According to this rule, a member of a grand jury may be disqualified from consideration of a charge or deliberation of the other grand jurors if that member has been charged with an indictable offense, is a prosecutor, if the offense was committed against the member’s person or property or if the member is related to the person charged or to the victim of the alleged crime by “blood or marriage within the sixth degree, computed by the civil law.”
Harris’ legal counsel asserts that none of the grand jurors dismissed in the case were dismissed for cause as provided by Rule 6(c), according to the motion.
“The defendant alleges therefore that the dismissal of those grand jurors and their substitution with others acceptable to the district attorney general was not authorized by law and constituted an impermissible interference in the independence of the grand jury by the district attorney general,” the motion said. “Such interference with the composition of the grand jury constitutes a legal defect in the institution of the prosecution.”
Bowman could not be reached Monday for comment.
Clark said Monday afternoon that his office intends to file a response to Bowman’s motion in the coming days.
Clark said the only question he asked of grand jurors was if they had a blood, working or justifiable relationship to Harris and if there was any reason that a juror could not hear the case with impartiality.
When this question was asked of the grand jury, Clark said two members indicated they could not hear the case under these stipulations. These two jurors were excused, Clark said.
The juror who was told that she would no longer be needed by the Circuit Court Clerk was connected with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, working in the training and handling of K-9s for the department, Clark said. Clark said he brought this to the attention of Criminal Court Judge Lynn Brown and the juror was excused. Clark said he did not meet with or question this juror.
Clark also said allegations that he “handpicked” the grand jury are false.
“I respectfully disagree with the whole thing,” Clark said of Bowman’s motion, “and we will be filing a motion.”
Harris is scheduled to appear in Unicoi County Criminal Court on Nov. 22.