District Attorney: Inmates photographed working on Harris’ property

Brad Hicks • Jul 9, 2013 at 3:39 PM

ERWIN — In his opening statement, District Attorney General Tony Clark told jurors selected to hear the trial of former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris on multiple charges of official misconduct that the state intended to prove that county inmates completed work on property owned by Harris to benefit the ex-public official.

But Jim Bowman, Harris’ defense attorney, told the jury that even if the state proves allegations outlined in Clark’s opening statement, the only verdict that could be returned would be one of “not guilty.”

Harris’ trial on six counts of official misconduct got under way Monday in Unicoi County Criminal Court. It is alleged that on several dates between June 23, 2010, and July 19, 2010, the then-sheriff committed the offenses by having inmates of the Unicoi County Jail do work on private property he owned on Mohawk Drive in Erwin. Harris pleaded not guilty to these charges Monday, the only time he spoke during the day’s proceedings.

The official misconduct charges represent six of the 10 felonies a Unicoi County grand jury charged Harris with in October 2011.

The trial began Monday with jury selection, which took approximately three hours.

Clark said in his opening statement that pictures presented as evidence during the trial will show county inmates were transported to Harris’ property at 604 Mohawk Drive, where they engaged in activities to benefit Harris such as “bush hogging,” mowing, wood cutting and razing of structures on the property.

“That is illegal,” Clark said. “You cannot do that in the state of Tennessee.”

Clark said other evidence would show that the inmates in questions were under the control of Harris and that the former sheriff was the owner of the property.

“As far as evidence in this case, the evidence will speak for itself,” Clark said.

In his opening statement, Bowman urged jurors to listen closely to the evidence.

“You did not hear the district attorney tell you that when these acts occurred that Kent Harris was there supervising,” Bowman said to the jury. “You did not hear the district attorney tell you that they would present evidence that he knew that the inmates were there doing any work.”

Testimony from the TBI agent tasked with investigating the allegations of inmate misuse against Harris made up the majority of the trial’s first-day testimony.

TBI Special Agent Brian Fraley said the allegations of inmates working on Harris’ Mohawk Drive property were made by Unicoi County resident Debbie Morrow, who lives across from the property in question. Fraley said Morrow contacted the TBI on July 12, 2010, to advise that she had photographs of inmates working on Harris’ Mohawk Drive property and maintained a journal of when she saw inmates on the property.

Fraley said he subsequently met with Morrow to discuss the matter, view the pictures she had taken and read the journal. He said throughout the investigation, he confirmed that individuals pictured were county inmates doing work such as weedeating, mowing and leveling a structure on the property.

He said Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department vehicles were also in the pictures, and that investigators found the supervisors of the inmates were individuals affiliated with the sheriff’s department — Harris’ brother Jason Harris, Litter Team supervisor Henry Hampton and former sheriff’s department maintenance worker Cozy Silvers.

While he said the property at 604 N. Mohawk Drive was transferred to Jason Harris in June 2011, Fraley said he had acquired documentation showing that the former sheriff owned the property at the time the alleged offenses occurred. He also said Kent Harris was in none of the pictures provided by Morrow.

In response to questioning from Bowman, Fraley said Morrow did state that she felt Harris was “harassing” her son due to a situation involving her son and ex-daughter-in-law, whose father was employed by the department. Fraley also testified that during the investigation the TBI spoke with Silvers, who identified individuals pictured as inmates, but the agency did not interview Hampton, Jason Harris or Kent Harris.

Current Unicoi County Jail Administrator Barbara Scalf, who worked as a corrections officer in the jail at the time of the allegations, also testified Monday. Scalf said records are maintained when inmates eligible for work detail are taken out and brought back to the jail. She also confirmed that Hampton, Silvers and Jason Harris were the supervisors of the maintenance and litter crews at the time the alleged crimes took place.

Former inmate Michael Clouse testified that inmates did complete work such as mowing, weedeating and collecting wood from the Mohawk Drive property. However, Clouse said he and other inmates understood the property was owned by Jason Harris.

The trial resumes today at 9 a.m. Clark said Monday that the trial is expected to last two to three days.

This is the third time in less than a year Harris has faced trial. His first two trials both ended with hung juries as jurors assigned to the cases failed to reach unanimous verdicts.

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