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A.G. says he will retry Harris

By Kayla Carter
Staff Writer
[email protected]
A mistrial was declared in the first of four planned trials involving former Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris after a jury, selected last Monday, was unable to hand down a unanimous verdict on the charge of theft over $1,000.
The jury foreman confirmed upon the request of Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood that differences between the jurors’ opinions were irreconcilable.
The foreman told The Erwin Record Monday that 11 jurors voted not guilty, while one juror maintained a vote of guilty.
The deadlocked jury presented the court with its ruling on Thursday around 10:30 a.m. after two hours of deliberation the prior afternoon.
The jury foreman declared that any further deliberation would have been non-productive.
Jim Bowman, co-attorney for Harris, said it is the state’s decision whether the case will be heard again. “It’s up to the state,” Bowman said immediately after the trial. “If the state wants to try it again, then we will try it again.”
District Attorney General Tony Clark said he is disappointed in the jury’s decision, but does plan to retry the case with a new jury, which could be selected from a new jury pool of about 500 people.
“I’m disappointed for a lot of different reasons that the jury was unable to reach a verdict, however, this is how the system works,” Clark said. “I thought we had a very good case and we put on all the evidence that we had, however, the jurors … we tell them to use their own judgment as far as evaluating the truthfulness in the personalities of the witnesses.”
Clark said events involved in the case are some of the oldest of all the charges brought upon Harris.
“I would rather just keep them in order,” Clark said. “It is one of the older cases. I’d rather go ahead and get it out of the way.”
After the court stood in recess on Thursday morning, Harris commented on the trial. “All I asked was for the truth to come out,” he said. “I couldn’t ever tell anybody my story because I had to wait until my day in court,” he said
During the trial, Tom and Lynn Colbaugh testified that they had no intention of seeking monetary gain from their donation of two vehicles to the sheriff’s department in September 2008. Lynn testified that she used her power of attorney to sign the cars, which belonged to Eugene and Edith Price, over to the county.
Harris testified that the Colbaughs were aware that money the county would pay for the vehicles would be used to train Buford, a bloodhound pup, for search and rescue purposes.
In his closing statement, Clark referred to other witnesses’ testimony about comments allegedly made by Harris to them regarding donation of the cars.
However, while under direct examination Harris testified that he “did not steal one thing from Unicoi County.” He said, “That money was not Unicoi County’s, no sir. It belonged to Ms. Price.”
Harris said after the trial that he believed certain witnesses may have “misled” the prosecution.
“I think that Tony Clark has been misled by these witnesses,” he said. “I still have to feel like Tony Clark is a good man because I’ve worked with him on a lot of stuff. I really believe he’s been misled by these people.”
However, Clark stated in his closing argument that he feels Harris exercised control over the money, which according to the prosecution belonged to the county.
Harris said that he understands it to be Clark’s right to request the case be heard again by a new jury.
“We will be ready to go again,” Harris said. “All I can do is come back and tell the truth. Everything I said was true.”
Harris questioned the state’s overall investigation based upon the dismissal of the criminal simulation charge so early in the trial. The court was to also hear the case for one count of criminal simulation, but Blackwood did not allow the jury to consider the case.
“It’s not often that a judge, before the jury goes out, will dismiss a case,” Harris said. “So, it’s obvious there was no evidence there.”
Clark said that he understood the criminal simulation charge was “merged” with the theft charge. “The judge did not have a hearing outside the jury’s presence or within the jury’s presence,” Clark said. “[Blackwood] just said that he was not going to let the criminal simulation go to the jury to be heard. We will be going forward with just the theft charge at the next trial.”
The charge of theft over $1,000 is a class D felony, which constitutes a sentence of 2-12 years.
Blackwood thanked the jurors for their service after the jury announced deadlock. “I know many of you may be disappointed in that you were not able to reach a verdict in this case, but that in no way diminishes the services that you have provided to the county over the last several days,” Blackwood said. “All we can ask of a juror is to come in here and listen to the proof and do the best job you can possibly do.”
The number of jury votes for either verdict were not released at the trial, and Clark said he was unaware of the split in the jurors’ opinions immediately after the court stood in recess around 11 a.m. The case will be heard again on Dec. 10, which originally was the date set to hear the last charge of official misconduct, handed down against Harris in February by a Unicoi County grand jury.
The last charge came about a week after a preliminary hearing during which Harris pleaded not guilty to the original 10 felony charges. Harris was indicted on 10 felony charges on Oct. 14.
Those charges included attempted aggravated assault, criminal simulation, tampering with evidence, theft over $1,000 and six counts of official misconduct.
During the preliminary hearing, Blackwood denied the defense two motions of dismissal, but granted a severance of offenses.
In March, Harris sent a letter to Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch that explained his resignation as sheriff. Harris cited an inability to serve as sheriff while recuperating from injuries sustained in a fall prior to the hearing.