Competency at issue for former U.S. Senate candidate accused in murder-for-hire, child sex solicitation cases

Becky Campbell • Nov 12, 2013 at 12:33 PM

ELIZABETHTON — A Jonesborough man accused in a solicitation of a minor case and a murder-for-hire plot has a mental disease, and his competency to stand trial is in question, according to a state prosecutor’s comments to a judge Tuesday.

Thomas Kent “T.K.” Owens, 38, 128 Leach St., Jonesborough, is charged in Carter County with solicitation of a minor and in Washington County with solicitation to commit first-degree murder.

Owens is in custody at the Washington County Detention Center and was not transported to attend a hearing before Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood in a Carter County courtroom Tuesday. In his absence, attorneys set a competency hearing and two trial dates in the cases.

Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks and defense attorney David Robbins told Blackwood they had received reports from Frontier Health, where Owens was evaluated, that indicate the man’s competency to stand trial fluctuates from day to day. That instability could prevent Owens from understanding the proceedings against him.

“The initial report from Frontier Health indicates he is competent to stand trial, but there are real concerns about his competency. He’s in a very volatile state, and they’re worried week to week whether nor not he’s going to be competent to stand trial,” Robbins said.

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The competency issue was already on the table in the solicitation of a minor case when Owens was charged with hiring a man to kill his uncle, Ernest Widby, a local minister and Carter County bailiff.

Brooks echoed Robbins’ comments and said he had a report that “one day Mr. Owens will be competent and soon after that will be in an incompetent state.”

Blackwood read a portion of a Frontier Health letter to the court reporting the status of Owens in August which said, in part, that Owens was competent to stand trial, but “Mr. Owens is not participating in any psychiatric treatment at this time. Clearly compliance is a problem. We’re concerned this may precipitate changes in his mental status.”

Robbins said a defense expert who examined Owens “is of the opinion (Owens) isn’t competent to stand trial.”

In the solicitation of a minor case, Robbins already had filed a motion stating his intent to rely on a defense of insanity at the time of that alleged crime.

That case stems from a May 21, 2011, incident in which Owens is accused of offering a 7-year-old girl a “twisty tie” ring he made. The girl had been riding her bike in front of Owens’ Carter County apartment when he approached her. When she went into his apartment, Owens gave her the ring and asked for a hug, according to court records. That’s when the girl said Owens unzipped his pants, exposed himself to her and asked if she wanted to put it in her mouth.

The girl said she told Owens she had to get home to finish her chores and then ran home.

Owens was free on bond in that case when he allegedly tried to hire the hit man to kill Widby. According to testimony in a preliminary hearing in the case, Owens believed Widby might kill him, and told the purported hit man it was “kill or be killed.”

The meeting took place in a Johnson City bar parking lot, so that charge was filed in Jonesborough.

Robbins made a verbal motion Tuesday to handle both cases in Jonesborough based on publicity in the first case.

“There was a lot of pretrial publicity. There’s an ongoing fascination between him and the media,” Robbins said.

Owens is no stranger to local media. In fact, he was once a local TV news reporter and a one-time long shot candidate for U.S. Senate.

Brooks said he did not oppose the change of venue, and Blackwood approved the motion. After further discussion about scheduling the proceedings, the attorneys and Blackwood agreed on a Jan. 27 competency hearing with Jan. 28 and 29 set aside for the two trials to take place in Jonesborough.

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