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Hearing reset for Washington County teens

By Brad Hicks

A hearing to determine whether two Washington County teenagers will be tried as adults for allegedly robbing a Flag Pond man and leading authorities on a pursuit that resulted in a fatal crash has been rescheduled for later this fall.

A transfer hearing was scheduled for Monday, Sept. 26, in Unicoi County Juvenile Court, but that hearing has been reset due to a report by the Department of Children’s Services having not been completed for one of the defendants prior to the hearing.

Assistant District Attorney General Ryan Curtis said the transfer hearing has been reset for Nov. 7 in Unicoi County Juvenile Court.

“We’re waiting on a report that outlines all sorts of different things that they evaluate for juveniles – education level, emotional capability and stability, and things like that, and neither side wants to go forward without that,” Curtis said. “We just wouldn’t be adequately prepared. The state wouldn’t be prepared to really pursue transferring it, and the defense wouldn’t be prepared to defend it.”

The two juveniles, one 14-years-old and the other 16-years-old, are each charged in Unicoi County with aggravated burglary, especially aggravated robbery, aggravated kidnapping, theft of property over $500, and theft of a vehicle over $1,000. The 16-year-old is also charged with felony evading arrest.

According to law enforcement officials, the teens on June 20 led authorities on a two-county chase which resulted in the death of 14-year-old Lacey Burton of Embreeville.

The 16-year-old was the driver of the vehicle and Burton’s brother, according to officials. The pursuit, which traveled from Unicoi County into Washington County for around 15 miles, began after the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department received the report of a robbery that allegedly occurred on Rice Creek Road in Flag Pond.

Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley previously said the alleged victim, identified as Roger Briggs, was beaten, robbed and tied up in his home but was able to free himself and go to a neighbor’s home to contact 911. The three juveniles were reportedly dropped off at Briggs’ residence by an adult where they waited on him to return home.

“When he returned, they grabbed him and assaulted him,” Hensley said previously. “They held him at knife point. They tied him up and placed him in a closet.”

Officials previously said the motive for the alleged robbery stemmed from an altercation between Briggs and his brother, which reported occurred on June 18. Briggs reportedly owed $100 to his brother, who is the grandfather of the juvenile siblings.

“They went up there to collect the debt,” Hensley said previously.

The teens also allegedly took the Ford Ranger owned by Briggs and traveled toward Washington County, which led to a be-on-the-lookout alert being issued for the vehicle. Hensley previously said officers attempted to stop the vehicle, but the driver refused to stop and exited Interstate 26 and drove down State Route 81 into Washington County.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office was notified of the pursuit, which turned right onto Cherokee Road, Hensley said.

The driver lost control of the truck as it approached the intersection of Cherokee Road and Charlie Hicks Road. As a report from the Tennessee Highway Patrol stated, that control of the vehicle was lost as a curve was negotiated causing the vehicle to roll over several times before coming to rest on its top. Burton was ejected from the vehicle. None of the occupants were wearing seatbelts, according to the THP.

Burton passed away on June 21 at the Johnson City Medical Center.

Hensley said it was not until after the crash that officers learned that the three subjects were juveniles. He also said officers in pursuit acted appropriately and that no officer made contact with the truck as control was lost.

Officers reportedly found at the crash scene two handguns and a large hunting knife. No charges have been placed against the adult who dropped the juveniles off at Briggs’ home, as this individual was reportedly unaware of what the teens were planning.

The state previously filed a motion seeking to have the case transferred from Juvenile Court to Criminal Court.

Members of the media have sought to attend the transfer hearing, and that request, along with the matter of publishing the juvenile defendants’ names, was discussed during a July 11 hearing in Unicoi County Juvenile Court, at which time a $60,000 corporate bond was set for the 16-year-old, and a $2,500 corporate bond was set for the 14-year-old.

During the July 11 hearing, attorneys Cameron Hyder and Elizabeth Jones, who represent the teens, objected to the media’s presence and use of the teens’ names in any reports. At that time, Juvenile Court Judge David Shults issued an order to, at least temporarily, block the publication of the juveniles’ names. An Aug. 15 hearing was scheduled due to the media’s request for permission to attend the transfer hearing.

Jones, during the Aug. 15 hearing, presented to Shults a motion to close proceedings to the public and the press, stating failure to close the proceedings would cause prejudice to her client and the child’s potential rehabilitative efforts. Hyder indicated he wished to join Jones’ motion.

Jones also wrote in her motion that if the case is transferred to Criminal Court, failing to close the proceedings would cause prejudice to the defendants’ right to a fair trial by an impartial jury.

Attorney David Blankenship, who is representing The Erwin Record and Johnson City Press, said during the Aug. 15 hearing that arguments outlined in Jones’ motion are “purely speculation,” and Jones and Hyder, who have the burden of proof in seeking closure of the proceedings, failed to present witness testimony or documentation as to why the proceedings should be closed. He also said the attorneys would be arguing a “moot point” if the case is transferred to Criminal Court, adding there is an overriding public interest in the case.

“The serious nature of these crimes needs to be in the public realm,” he said.

Hyder said, while the case meets the criteria for the proceedings to be open, the investigation is still ongoing and charges could be coming out of Washington County. He said opening proceedings could impact this investigation.

Shults did not make a ruling during the Aug. 15 hearing but had asked attorneys to be present on Sept. 26, the date originally scheduled for the transfer hearing, at which time a decision regarding media access to the Juvenile Court proceedings is set to be made.