Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Harris jury seated, trial opens

By Kayla Carter
Staff Writer
[email protected]
The first day of former Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris’ trial yielded a jury panel with two alternates, opening statements and about two hours of testimony on Monday in the Unicoi County Courthouse.
A 12-person jury was selected to hear two related charges involving vehicles the prosecution maintains were donated to the county.
The grand jury presentment states the charge of criminal simulation involves “requesting payment from Unicoi County for vehicles valued at $4,500 that were actually donated.” The related charge is theft over $1,000, which refers to the total amount of money the county paid for the vehicles.
In his opening statement, District Attorney General Tony Clark outlined details regarding two vehicles which were signed over to the county by Tom and Lynn Colbaugh.
However, Clark alleged that Harris asked the county for $4,500 in exchange for the vehicles.
Clark told the jury that a memo sent to the county mayor’s office was created by Harris, and that two checks were then written for separate amounts to total $4,500 by the county trustee office.
Clark said Harris made an attempt to give the Colbaughs the money, but that “An audit on the accounts showed the money drawn out was never put back into any account.” Clark said. “The state feels this was a wrongful act.”
Clark reiterated to the jury that the burden of proof lies solely upon the state, and that Harris does not have to say or do anything to prove his innocence during the trial.
Harris’ co-attorney, Stacy Street, led the defense in opening arguments by elaborating on a previous relationship between Harris and the Colbaughs, which involved the purchase of bloodhounds.
He said the Colbaughs were heavily involved in Harris’ initiative to purchase bloodhounds for use in rescue missions.
The Colbaughs spent money on obtaining the bloodhounds as well as buying supplies and feeding them, Street said, but adequate training was not purchased in time for the dogs to be of use to the county.
They were also becoming an added expense to the county, Street said.
Street told the jury that the former sheriff used the money obtained through the sale of the vehicles upon permission of the Colbaughs, as well as $1,000 of his own money, to ensure the dogs were placed in the East Tennessee Bloodhound Rescue and Sanctuary.
Street said the county is currently using the vehicles that were purchased and the money was kept in a safe inside the sheriff’s department until the dogs were picked up by the rescue center’s director, Pattye Elliott.
He told the jury that Harris is being wrongly accused.
The prosecution’s first witness was Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Assistant Special Agent in Charge Shannon Morton, the agent who initiated the first investigation on Harris, which led to the initial 10 felony charges.
Much of Morton’s original testimony, which was given in absence of the jury, was thrown out because it lacked relevance to the case being tried.
TBI Agent and Investigator Chris Bevins of Morristown was questioned for the remainder of the session about the details of his investigation.
Bevins testified that after being assigned to investigate, he began interviews and obtained documents regarding the money transfer.
The defense and Clark each questioned Bevins about specific dates and communications with the Colbaughs.
Before testimony began, the jury panel selection process took about three hours, which Clark said was a lot faster than he expected.
“I’m satisfied that we were able to get a jury that quickly,” he said. “I thought it was going to be more difficult.” Clark also stated that he should be able to get most of the prosecution’s case out when the court reconvenes on Tuesday at 9 a.m.
The charges being tried are two of 11 total charges against Harris, who was originally indicted on 10 felony charges by a Unicoi County Grand Jury on Oct. 14, 2011.
The current charges include attempted aggravated assault, criminal simulation, tampering with evidence, theft over $1,000 and seven counts of official misconduct. The last charge of official misconduct was handed down on Feb. 16 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. Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood denied the defense two motions of dismissal during the hearing, but granted a severance of offenses.
The motions of dismissal were filed by the defense in regard to grand jury proceedings during the grand jury meeting in which the original charges were handed down.
Clark called witnesses to explain the details involved in the recuperation of jurors who failed to sign the presentment as well as the dismissal of jurors upon his questioning. Clark demonstrated to Blackwood that the county court lacked experience with the grand jury proceedings required for the case.
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 preliminary hearing.