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Jury unable to reach verdict in Harris retrial

The retrial for the charge of theft over $1,000 against former Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris resulted in a deadlocked jury on Friday, Dec. 14, in the Unicoi County Courthouse.
District Attorney General Tony Clark said the prosecution was “disappointed” by the result of the trial, which was previously tried in court from July 30 to Aug. 2.
“We thought that last time we had put on a good amount of evidence and of course that the defendant in this case, Mr. Harris, was guilty of taking this money,” Clark said on Friday.
“Part of the jury didn’t agree to that so, as last time we had a hung jury and this time we had a hung jury.
“Of course, you’re disappointed because you want some sense of closure,” Clark said. “Even though there are other cases to be tried, this is one that we want to get behind us and unfortunately we didn’t today.”
During the trial, Honorable Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood confirmed the jury believed more deliberation would not result in a unanimous verdict of guilty or not guilty of the charge.
The theft over $1,000 charge, which is one of 10 charges handed down by a Unicoi County grand jury in October 2011, was the result of an investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation into the handling of funds the prosecution believes belonged to the county.
Details that link Big Tom, Maggie and Buford, bloodhounds once owned by the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, to the handling of $4,500 emerged during the second hearing of the trial.
Discrepancies in the case center around whether the $4,500 was the result of a donation or payment for two used Buicks currently in use by the county.
The state and defense presented evidence that two checks from Unicoi County totaling $4,500 were issued to Tom and Lynn Colbaugh for the transfer of the vehicles.
During the court proceeding, Tom and Lynn Colbaugh testified that they donated the vehicles to the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department in 2008.
Harris testified that he sent a document regarding the purchase of the vehicles to County Mayor Greg Lynch's office in order to request the checks through the trustee's office.
The Colbaughs testified that Harris asked them to cash the checks and return the money to him. Harris disagreed with the Colbaughs testimony regarding the date and location of when they returned the money to him.
The $4,500, Harris testified, was placed in a safe located in his office at the time to fund search and rescue training for Buford.
The Colbaughs, who originally donated the money to buy Big Tom and Maggie, denied that arrangements for the money to be used for Buford's training were ever discussed.
“That never happened,” Tom said Dec. 11 during his testimony. “We were donating the cars.”
The state argued that Harris should have taken the cash to the trustee's office and had the Unicoi County Commission approve the return of the money to the county for training Buford.
During a cross examination, the defense questioned Mark Treece, an auditor with the Tennessee Comptroller's office, about a state statute concerning county gift and donation procedures.
“If it was turned over to the county and it had stipulations to it, the statute we looked at there has requirements for county commission approval,” Treece said on Wednesday.
Harris testified that the $4,500 returned to him still belonged to the Colbaughs and/or Lynn's aunt Edyth Price, therefore it did not require approval by the Unicoi County Commission.
The defense argued during the cross examination of Treece that once the checks were cashed by the Colbaughs, then the county had no further interest in the money.
“I didn't steal one dime from Unicoi County,” Harris testified on Thursday.
During closing arguments, defense attorney James Bowman suggested to the jury that the Colbaughs had motive to not tell the truth about the intent to train Buford with the $4,500, which was held in the safe for around three years.
“This case depends on whether you are satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the Colbaughs told you the truth,” Bowman said.
Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks delivered the state’s closing argument to the jury.
“I suggest to you there’s not a single reason why the Colbaughs would have made up anything to that investigator in November 2011,” Brooks said.
Harris declined to speak to media after the court adjourned to go into recess about 3 p.m. on Friday, but he addressed everyone still in the courtroom.
“As far as the media, I’m not going to say anything to you,” Harris said. “I just want to say I appreciate these people — my family, my friends.” Harris also said, “I think the truth will come out and I think it did here.”
After the jury's deadlock was announced, Blackwood granted the defense until Jan. 15 to decide whether or not to try the case for a third time, Clark said.
“That’s something I’m going to sit down and talk about with the witnesses and talk with some of the county representatives because they were, in our opinion, the victims in the case,” Clark said. “I think after trying this one twice and putting on all the evidence that we had and the witnesses, I don’t see putting the Colbaughs and some of the witnesses through this again, but that’s a decision I’d rather talk to them about and the county officials before I make that decision.”
Since the defense, Clark said, has not agreed to move the trial to a different location or to select a jury from another location then by law it must remain in Unicoi County.
“… If we could get a jury from another location I would like to do that,” Clark said. “That’s no reflection on the jurors we have here, but it is hard when you’ve worked around, lived around and elected a man … to then turn around and ask you to convict him.”
Clark also said he knew the jury split, however Blackwood requested it to not be disclosed.
“The judge told us but said not to speak of it,” Clark said on Friday. “I don’t know if the defense will. I’m not. It was not 11-1 like someone had said last time. I’ve not spoken to any of the jurors, but I know what the count was.”
The cost of the Harris trials was disputed by Clark who said the cost of all the trials combined has been “exacerbated” and the only expense would be the cost to accommodate jurors.
“What people need to understand is that everybody that works here is paid anyway,” Clark said. “The cost of $10,000 to $15,000 to $20,000 a case is just absurd.”
During an August county finance committee meeting, County Court Clerk Darren Shelton said the cost of the first Harris trial was about $8,300 not including extra security.
“It was almost $7,000 to pay all of the jurors for just the time they spend here,” Shelton said. Shelton has previously said the jury pool for the first trial was made up of around 500 individuals who were summoned.
Shelton said other costs associated with the jurors include food, postage for their summons, postage to mail checks and any extra security needed at the courthouse.
Shelton said the overall total would depend on if the state decides to try the first case again.
“It all probably wouldn't be in the same budget year,” Shelton said. “If we do them all, we're not going to get them done before June. Overall you can figure $8-10,000 for each trial. I pay the bills. These figures are give and take, but it's a good estimated amount.”
Harris' attorneys Bowman and Stacy Street were unable to be reached by The Erwin Record deadline on Monday.

By Kayla Carter
Staff Writer
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