Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark has appointed a new judge, Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, to oversee Criminal Court actions of Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris.
Blackwood is no stranger to the area — he was chosen to hear the Howard Hawk Willis double-murder case. Willis was found guilty in June 2010 and sentenced to death.
Clark’s order, filed Monday morning in Unicoi County Criminal Court, states that the move to assign Blackwood to preside over Harris’ case to its conclusion was done “in the interest of the efficient and orderly administration of justice.”
Blackwood has already begun work on the case, resetting Harris’ arraignment hearing, initially scheduled for this morning, to Feb. 7. On that date, Blackwood will also consider pending motions that have been filed thus far and any Harris’ legal counsel anticipates filing prior to the arraignment hearing.
A deadline for filing motions was also set for April 30 by Blackwood, and the judge set a deadline for entry of a negotiated settlement for May 30. Blackwood’s orders, filed Monday afternoon in Unicoi County Criminal Court, state that a trial date will not be set at this time, as the court has been informed that a change of venue motion may be anticipated.
Criminal Court Judge Lynn W. Brown was originally scheduled to hear the case. The offices of Brown and Blackwood declined to comment on Clark’s order.
On Oct. 14, a Unicoi County grand jury returned 10 true bills charging Harris with 10 felonies, including six counts of official misconduct and one count each of tampering with evidence, criminal simulation, theft over $1,000 and attempted aggravated assault.
District Attorney General Tony Clark previously said that the charges stem from a pair of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation investigations — one that got under way in 2009 and the other in 2010 — the overlapped and were eventually combined. According to the TBI, the agency began the investigation into allegations of misconduct made against Harris in September 2010 after being requested by Clark’s office.
Following the return of the indictments, Brown issued a criminal summons in lieu of arrest to Harris.
The following week, Harris reported to the Unicoi County Jail for booking and processing.
Harris’ legal counsel filed a motion Oct. 25 requesting the dismissal of charges against their client, alleging that Clark interfered with the independence and composition of the grand jury. Clark filed a response to this motion the following day, denying the allegations and calling on the court to deny the motion.
Earlier this month, Harris’ attorneys filed a second motion requesting the dismissal of charges against Harris, alleging that the presentment document returned by the grand jury charging Harris was not signed by grand jury members or the grand jury foreman when it was presented to the court.
Last week, Harris’ attorneys filed a waiver of appearance, which would have allowed Harris to be absent from the arraignment hearing that was scheduled for today.