No change of venue request expected in U.C. sheriff case

Brad Hicks • Feb 4, 2012 at 10:35 PM

ERWIN — Several motions have already been filed in the criminal case involving Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris, and the filing of more is a possibility before Harris makes his initial appearance in Unicoi County Criminal Court on Tuesday.

However, one filing District Attorney General Tony Clark said he does not expect to see from either side before the hearing is a motion seeking a change of venue.

When Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark appointed Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood to oversee Harris’ case in November, Blackwood filed orders in Unicoi County Criminal Court. Per these orders, a deadline for filing motions in the case was set for April 30, and a deadline for entry of a negotiated settlement was set for May 30. But Blackwood’s orders stated a trial date would not yet be set, as the court had been informed that a change of venue motion may be anticipated.

A motion for a change of venue can be filed by either the prosecution or the defense. Clark said that under Tennessee Case Law, if the state moves for a change of venue, the motion must be agreed upon by the defense before it can be granted. If the defense were to move for a change of venue, a judge could grant the motion even if there is objection from the state.

But Clark said even if this was not the law, he would still rather see Harris’ case tried in Unicoi County.

“I knew from experience in other cases and trials that asking for a change of venue would have to be agreed to by the defense, and I don’t foresee any defense attorney agreeing to that,” he said. “ Everything that we charged (Harris) with allegedly had to have occurred in Unicoi County involving Unicoi people and Unicoi money, and I think Unicoi County citizens ought to hear the case. And I’m sure, without speaking for them, they feel the same way.”

Clark said he is anticipating the case will eventually go to trial and is assuming the defense feels the same. When it gets to that point, Clark said he anticipates that the case will be heard by 12 jurors selected from a jury pool made up of Unicoi County citizens.

“I think the jury in any case, we get a chance to question them and ask them questions and they’re under oath to give truthful answers, so that’s what the system is for so I have faith in it,” Clark said. “And I guess the sheriff, I’m not speaking for any of them for the defense, but I guess they have faith in the system as well.”

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.

Clark previously said Harris’ charges are the result of two Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probes — one initiated in 2009 and the other in 2010 — that overlapped and were later 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.

On Oct. 24, Harris’ attorneys filed a motion requesting the dismissal of the charges against their client, alleging Clark interfered with the independence and composition of the grand jury that returned the indictments against Harris. Clark filed a motion the following day denying the allegations and calling on the court to deny the motion. Harris’ attorneys filed an amendment to this motion on Tuesday.

In November, Harris’ legal counsel filed a second motion seeking the dismissal of charges against their client, alleging 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.

The motions filed up to this point are expected to be considered when Harris appears in Unicoi County Criminal Court on Tuesday.

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