Update: Official misconduct charges dismissed against former Unicoi sheriff Harris; prosecutors may not proceed with remaining charges

Brad Hicks • Jul 10, 2013 at 10:26 AM

ERWIN — Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood told the jurors chosen to hear former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris’ trial on six counts of official misconduct that he had little doubt that a violation of the law had occurred. However, Blackwood said the evidence heard over the two-day trial was not sufficient to charge Harris with the felonies.

Before the jury could consider the case, Blackwood dismissed all six of the official misconduct charges against Harris by granting a motion for acquittal made by Harris’ attorney Jim Bowman after the state rested its case Tuesday afternoon in Unicoi County Criminal Court.

It was alleged that over several dates between June 23, 2010, and July 19, 2010, then-sheriff Harris committed the offenses by having Unicoi County Jail inmates work on private property he owned at 604 N. Mohawk Drive for his personal benefit. These represent six of the 10 felonies a Unicoi County grand jury charged Harris with in October 2011.

Bowman told Blackwood that witness testimony did not indicate that Harris was on the property at the center of the case when the alleged offenses occurred, and that no witness testimony pointed to the former sheriff directing Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department work release supervisors to have inmates work on the property.

Bowman said because the prosecution failed to prove these items, it failed to prove an essential element of the official misconduct charges with which Harris was charged — that the former sheriff knowing or intentionally had county inmates working on property he owned for his personal benefit.

“All the evidence shows is someone in the sheriff’s department, either Jason Harris, Cozy Silvers or Henry Hampton, supervised this,” Bowman said while making the motion. “The testimony from other witnesses was that they were the ones that directed these inmates as to what to do. Whether or not some offenses might have been committed or not, there is, at this point, no evidence whatsoever that Kent Harris had any knowledge of conduct there.”

District Attorney General Tony Clark said that while Bowman was correct in that the statute does require the defendant to have knowledge and intent of the crime, Clark said the state has proven through circumstantial evidence that Harris was sheriff at the time of the alleged offenses, director of the sheriff’s department work release crews, and was owner of the property where the alleged offenses occurred when they occurred.

Blackwood said he felt that state did prove that county inmates were working on private property under the direction of the former sheriff or his brother, Jason Harris, an inmate work release supervisor. However, Blackwood said the official misconduct statute that Harris was charged under requires proof that a public servant acted “knowingly or intentionally” in violating the law for his or her benefit. Blackwood said evidence to that effect was circumstantial in this case.

“It’s probable that sheriff Harris may have known what was going on at this property,” the judge said. “It’s just as probable that he didn’t.”

Blackwood ruled that the evidence presented was insufficient to send the case to the jury and dismissed the charges against Harris.

“Whether or not he knew this was going on will be a matter for his conscience for the rest of his life, but it is not enough to conclude that the evidence is sufficient to convict him of this felony,” Blackwood said.

Over the two-day trial, which began with jury selection Monday morning, testimony was given by several witnesses, including Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Brian Fraley, who testified through investigation that he confirmed inmates were doing work such as weedeating, mowing and level a structure on the Mohawk Drive property, and Debbie Morrow, the county resident who supplied the TBI with photographs of Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department officials and inmates allegedly working on the property that initiated the TBI investigation.

Following Blackwood’s directed verdict for dismissal, Kent Harris said he was thankful to those in attendance to support him, his attorney and God.

“It’s not been easy to go through what I’ve went through over the past three years,” he said. “The fall (from the Unicoi County Jail roof in August 2010), the injury, being in the hospital for over a year, the rehab and, as soon as I come home, all these charges hitting me. I was never here to defend myself. The TBI never came to me and asked me if I would talk to them. ... I was never given that opportunity. And I was not guilty of this charge.”

Harris also said inmates pictured in the photographs were collecting firewood to distribute to needy county residents in the wintertime, a program that has been going on for a number of years and one that Harris said Clark allowed. He also said he sold the Mohawk Drive property to his brother Jason Harris in April 2010.

“I’m glad it’s been dismissed, but you wish sometimes, too, maybe that everyone could have heard the defense because I think you would have clearly seen there were no laws violated on that property,” Kent Harris said.

Following the adjournment of court, Clark said he “respectfully disagreed” with Blackwood’s ruling, as he felt circumstantial evidence could be used to show knowledge and intent in official misconduct cases. He also said he felt confident that there was enough evidence to take the case to the jury.

“I’m disappointed in the fact that this case did not make it to the jury, because I think we took a lot of time in picking a jury. ... I think for this case we had a good jury,” Clark said. “I think our witnesses, we were able to line up when inmates were checked out, that they were inmates, correlated that with the time sheets of the work crew supervisors, and then we had pictures of them on those days on that property.

“I think, as Judge Blackwood pointed out, we proved a crime. Without a doubt we proved a crime. Somebody at that jail utilized prisoners to clean up his property, and knowing how (Kent Harris) operated his office while he was here, I find it unbelievable that he did not know inmates over a four or five week period were working on property that’s a mile from here and three minutes from his house.”

Although Blackwood said he felt that criminal activity had taken place on the Mohawk Drive property, Clark said charges would not be pursued as the statute of limitations has already expired on any crime that anyone could be charged under.

Both of Harris’ previous trials ended with hung juries when juries in the cases could not reach unanimous verdicts. Harris has yet to be tried on three charges — a single count of official misconduct he was indicted on in February 2012, attempted aggravated assault and tampering with evidence — and he may not be. Clark said he is leaning toward not pursuing trials on these charges. He said an official decision would likely be made within the next few days.

“At this point, I don’t see those going forward,” he said. “I think the people of Unicoi County are tired. ... I don’t foresee me pursuing any of the rest of these charges.”

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