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District attorney: State will not pursue remaining charges against former Unicoi Co. sheriff Kent Harris

Brad Hicks • Aug 7, 2013 at 4:29 PM

ERWIN — District Attorney General Tony Clark said the decision not to pursue future prosecution against former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris was not an easy one to arrive at, but Clark said it is time to put the matter behind the citizens of Unicoi County.

“I feel, at this point, as DA, it’s my job to say ‘this is enough’ and move on,” Clark said.

Clark announced Tuesday that his office will not try former Harris on the three remaining felonies that the former sheriff has not yet been tried on. Harris had not yet been tried on the charges of tampering with evidence and attempted aggravated assault, two of the 10 felonies a Unicoi County grand jury charged Harris with in October 2011, and a single count of official misconduct, a charge that Harris was indicted on in February 2012.

Harris has already faced trial three times. Harris’ first trial on the charges of theft over $1,000 and criminal simulation ended in August 2012 when the jury in the case failed to reach a unanimous verdict. During the course of this trial, Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood ordered a directed verdict on the criminal simulation charge, and it was not considered by the jury. After the declaration of a mistrial due to the hung jury, Clark opted to retry Harris on the theft charge.

The second trial on the theft charge ended with the same result as the first trial, with the jury in the case failing to reach a unanimous verdict.

The third trial Harris faced was on six counts of official misconduct. It was alleged that over several dates between June 23, 2010, and July 19, 2010, then-sheriff Harris had Unicoi County Jail inmates work on private property he owned at 604 N. Mohawk Drive in Erwin, and Harris was indicted on these charges in October 2011.

The two-day trial came to an end last month when Blackwood granted a motion for acquittal made by Harris’ attorney Jim Bowman after the state rested its case.

Blackwood said he felt evidence showed that a violation of the law had occurred on the Mohawk Drive property, but the judge said he felt the state failed to prove that Harris “knowingly or intentionally” violated the law for his benefit, a requirement of the state code under which Harris was charged. Blackwood dismissed the charges before the case was sent to the jury. Judgments dismissing these official misconduct charges were entered in Unicoi County Criminal Court in late July.

Clark cited the outcomes of Harris’ previous trials as the reason he opted not to proceed with future prosecution of the former sheriff.

“It was a difficult decision on my part because I felt that we put on the proof we had, I thought the evidence was good in those cases,” Clark said. “Of course, there was two hung juries in the first two trials and, in the third trial, of course, the judge did not allow those to go to the jury. I thought they should have. Once we rested our case, I thought the ‘knowing and intentionally’ aspect of that particular crime was a jury question. Of course, the judge didn’t feel that way, and I respectfully disagree with him.”

Clark said Tuesday that he does not foresee the outcomes of future trials being different than the results of Harris’ first two trials. He said the defense must agree to a change of venue request by the prosecution. He also said Blackwood’s ruling in Harris’ latest trial is not appealable.

“In looking over the last year-and-a-half to two years, the investigation itself, and looking at the trials we have went through, the witnesses and everything that everyone’s went through with the county, I just thought that there came a point, after that last trial, there came a point when I realized trying those other cases was probably going to end in the result of a hung jury. If I feel that way as a prosecutor, then I have an obligation to not go forward, and that’s why that decision was made,” Clark said.

Clark also said that his decision to prosecute Harris was not “personal” or “politically motivated.” He said a complaint against Harris was previously brought to his attention, leading him to request an investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

“If these charges had been brought to me and it had been Joe Blow off the street or Kent Harris or anybody else, it was my job to look at those and take the evidence that was gathered by the TBI and take that to the grand jury,” Clark said. “That’s my job. Once the grand jury unanimously said there was sufficient evidence to indict Kent Harris, it was my job to take those cases forward.”

However, Clark said he had to look at the pattern of the previous outcomes, adding that he had an obligation to Unicoi County and the First Judicial District not to proceed with prosecuting the remaining charges. He said a motion requesting the dismissal of the charges Harris has not yet been tried on will soon be filed in Unicoi County Criminal Court.

“I think I did my job and, I think, at this point it’s time to end this and put it behind us, behind me, and behind Kent Harris, and the families that were involved on both sides and the witnesses that were involved on both sides, and move on,” Clark said.

Clark also said no additional charges will be forthcoming from any of the previous trials.

Harris said Tuesday afternoon that he is innocent of all the charges against him and that Clark “did the right thing” by making the decision not to pursue future prosecution.

“It’s just been a long, three-year ordeal for me, starting out with my injury and then all this,” Harris said. “I’m just glad it’s over.”

The former sheriff also said he was not given the opportunity to give his “side of the story,” stating that he was not interviewed by the TBI. Harris said if this would have occurred, Clark would not have pursued prosecution.

“I’ve alway considered Tony Clark a good man, and he was given information that wasn’t true and was kind of dragged into this,” Harris said.

Harris also said the trials have not only been taxing on him and his family, but has been an expense to the citizens on Unicoi County. He said residents of the county deserve a “more important use” of their tax dollars. “Hopefully, it will put it behind the people, too,” Harris said of Clark’s decision.

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