Ex-Unicoi County sheriff’s third trial starts Monday

Brad Hicks • Jul 7, 2013 at 9:35 PM

ERWIN — For the third time in less than a year, former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris will face trial in Unicoi County Criminal Court.

On Monday, July 8 at 9 a.m., Harris is set begin trial on six counts of official misconduct. These charges make up six of the 10 felony charges a Unicoi County grand jury indicted Harris on in October 2011.

It is alleged that on several dates between June 23, 2010, and July 19, 2010, then-sheriff Harris committed the offenses by having inmates of the Unicoi County Jail work on property he owned on Mohawk Drive.

On June 5, Harris’ defense attorney, Jim Bowman, filed a motion seeking the charges’ dismissal. In his motion, Bowman said the state should be barred from prosecuting the charges because, under state law, they should be classified as misdemeanors, which would cause the charges to fall outside the state’s one-year statute of limitations to prosecute misdemeanors.

In his motion, Bowman cited Tennessee Code Annotated 41-3-106, which pertains to official misconduct. The code states: “No sheriff, jailer or other person responsible for the care and custody of inmates housed in a county or municipal jail or workhouse may employ, require or otherwise use any inmate housed in the jail or workhouse to perform labor that will or may result directly or indirectly in the sheriff’s, jailer’s or other person’s personal gain, profit or benefit or in gain, profit or benefit to a business partially or wholly owned by the sheriff, jail or other person.”

Bowman further said in his motion that under this statute, those convicted of violating the code on the first offense have committed a misdemeanor.

On June 10, District Attorney General Tony Clark filed an answer to Bowman’s motion in which Clark said Harris was charged under TCA 39-16-402, which also pertains to public servants who commit an offense for benefit or to harm others, rather than the code cited by Bowman in his motion. Clark said in the answer that charges under TCA 39-16-402 are classified as Class E felonies.

Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, who was previously appointed to oversee Harris’ Criminal Court proceedings, filed an order denying Bowman’s motion seeking the charges’ dismissal.

Harris was originally set to begin trial today on a single charge of official misconduct, a charge that stems from a February 2012 grand jury indictment. It is alleged that in November 2011, the then-sheriff directed a Sheriff’s Department employee to use departmental supplies and equipment to prepare a letter soliciting funds to pay his defense attorneys’ fees during that employee’s work hours.

Clark previously said early last month that he and Bowman had discussed trying Harris on other charges prior to proceeding with the trial on the single official misconduct charge. Blackwood’s office advised the attorneys that this could be done as long as Harris was tried on the same offense.

Harris first faced trial late last July on charges of theft over $1,000 and criminal simulation. The trial ended Aug. 2 in a mistrial, as the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Harris was retried on the theft charge. That retrial ended Dec. 13 with the same result as Harris’ first trial, when the jury in the case again deadlocked on a verdict.

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