Harris Trial Ends in Hung Jury

ERWIN — Yesterday, the Jury was unable to render a verdict in the first criminal trial against Kent Harris, former sheriff of Unicoi County. More than seven months ago, a Unicoi County grand jury returned 10 true bills charging then-Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris with 10 felonies. Monday morning, his trial on two of those charges began. The trial ended Wednesday and the Jury went into deliberations on Wednesday at 4:40 p.m.

On Oct. 14, a grand jury returned 10 true bills charging Harris with six counts of official misconduct, and one count each of tampering with evidence, criminal simulation, theft over $1,000 and attempted aggravated assault.

The charges stemmed from a pair of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation investigations — one initiated in 2009 and the other in 2010 — that overlapped and were subsequently combined.

According to the TBI release, the official misconduct charges are the result of several occurrences in June and July of 2010 when Harris allegedly had Unicoi County inmates perform labor on private property owned by him.

According to the TBI, Harris tampered with evidence in September 2008 by altering or destroying evidence that was part of an ongoing investigation at that time. A presentment document filed in Unicoi County Criminal Court said this evidence involved moonshine.

Harris’ charge of attempted aggravated assault was the result of a confrontation with county resident J.D. Hensley following a July 2011 meeting of the Unicoi County Commission’s Finance Committee, according to the presentment. According to the TBI, Harris was charged after attempting to assault Hensley with a deadly weapon, which was identified as Harris’ cane.

The prosecution felt the evidence of the case showed Harris committed the offense of criminal simulation in September 2008 by requesting payment from the county for vehicles valued at $4,500 that were in actuality donated. The theft over $1,000 charge resulted from Harris receiving the $4,500 belonging to the county, according to the presentment.

Harris’ legal counsel tried various motions and maneuvers seeking the dismissal of the charges. On Oct. 24, the County Commission was set to discuss the possible initiation of ouster proceedings against Harris but no action was taken because of mounting political pressure.

In November, Blackwood was appointed to oversee the Criminal Court actions involving Harris. During a Feb. 7 arraignment hearing, Harris pleaded not guilty to all 10 charges against him. Blackwood dismissed the defense’s motions seeking dismissal of the charges, but did grant the request to separate Harris’ charges.

The week after this arraignment hearing, a Unicoi County grand jury returned a true bill charging Harris with an 11th felony, an additional count of official misconduct. According to the presentment document filed in Criminal Court, Harris had a Sheriff’s Department employee use departmental equipment and supplies to prepare a letter soliciting funds to pay his attorneys’ fees during that employee’s working hours. A Dec. 10 trial date was set for this latest charge.

On March 1, Harris submitted his letter of resignation to the county, citing ongoing health problems due to injuries suffered in an August 2010 alleged fall from the roof of the Unicoi County Jail. The Unicoi County Commission unanimously accepted Harris’ resignation at a called meeting held on March 9.

The trial of former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris on two of 10 felony charges began Monday.

The day included selection of a jury and opening statements from the district attorney general and Harris’ legal counsel and testimony from a pair of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents.

At the trial’s center are two vehicles, $4,500 withdrawn from county funds and a pair of bloodhounds.

In his opening statement, District Attorney General Tony Clark said the story of the charges began in 2008 and involved Tom and Lynn Colbaugh, friends of Kent Harris.

“They had been close friends with Mr. Harris for some time, close enough that in 2006 they left their entire estate (estimated at 1.5 million dollars) to Mr. Harris,” Clark told the jurors.

Clark said that in September 2008, Harris approached the Colbaughs to see if they would be interested in donating two vehicles to the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department. They agreed to do so.

The prosecution presented evidence that these vehicles were donated to Kent Harris and a title transfer took place in late September 2008. The prosecution also presented a memorandum signed by Harris that was submitted to the Unicoi County Mayor’s office, requesting $4,500 in county funds to pay for these vehicles.

Mr. Harris asked the Colbaughs to cash the check and give him the cash.

The evidence showed the cars were donated. Why was $4,500 drawn out of a county account to pay for these two vehicles? Why did the sheriff ask the Colbaughs to cash the county check and give him the cash? Why would close friends of Mr. Harris lie about $4,500 after leaving their estate estimated of 1.5 million dollars to him?

The requisition went through the mayor’s office and two checks totaling $4,500 were issued by the Unicoi County Trustee’s office. The prosecution proved that Harris ended up with this money after the checks were cashed.

A state auditor provided testimony that a check for the account the $4,500 was drawn and a withdrawal of that this money was never put back into any account dealing with the sheriff’s department.

Harris’ co-counsel, Stacy Street, said the $4,500 in question was to go to the care of two bloodhounds previously purchased by Tom Colbaugh that were to serve as search and rescue dogs for the sheriff’s department.

The dogs were purchased but they did not receive the training or handling necessary to become effective search and rescue dogs. The dogs eventually became a financial burden for the county.

The jury selection process took up the majority of the trial on Monday and concluded around 1:30 p.m. The jury comprised of six men and six women stated that they at least knew of Harris through his role as sheriff of Unicoi County.

Loyalty to Kent Harris among the jurists was strong. A majority of the jury refused to believe the evidence presented by the state. Some jurors changed their verdicts after mounting pressure for an innocent verdict. In the end, one jurist resisted the pressure and voted guilty which ended the verdict in a hung jury.

The case will be retried on December 10th.

2 Responses to “Harris Trial Ends in Hung Jury”

  1. Curious Neighbor Says:

    Are people in Unicoi County ignorant? Why do you people continue to allow corruption to continue to thrive? How can a person of average financial means… get elected and become wealthy?

    I have followed this trial and was shocked that the criminal actions of an acting sheriff were not met with a swift verdict of guilty! Your local government is obviously corrupt!

    This verdict or lack thereof…is disturbing, immoral and unethical!

  2. Leave it Says:

    No wonder people are turned off with politics. You mean eleven people were willing to turn their head to let them criminal off? The one juror who voted guilty should be the new sheriff! I do not live in Erwin but this is an embarrassment.

    How come everyone other than people in Erwin, know Kent Harris is nothing but a damn crook?

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