Jury finds Harris guilty on all counts

Published 1:12 am Tuesday, July 24, 2007

NATCHEZ — A federal jury found Jefferson County Circuit Clerk Burnell Harris guilty on counts of embezzlement, tax evasion and money laundering Monday afternoon.

Harris frowned slightly as the verdict was read. Afterward, he gave one of his attorneys a one-armed hug.

The jury found Harris guilty on all nine felony counts — three for embezzlement, two for money laundering and four for tax evasion.

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Under Mississippi law, a public official must resign if he is convicted of a felony.

“The jury carefully considered the evidence and rendered a just verdict,” prosecutor Richard Starrett said.

Defense attorney Bruce Lewis would not comment after the case.

Harris’ sentencing hearing will be Oct. 3.

Harris was indicted in January on charges of embezzling thousands in county money, not claiming the embezzled funds on his tax returns and using some of the money to buy two vehicles.

Harris used a different system for handling copy fees and put funds into his private bank account, prosecutors said. Harris said he did not know copy fees counted toward the state-mandated maximum he could earn from fees.

“This is a very simple case,” government attorney William Stuckwisch said in his closing arguments Monday. “This case is about stealing, cheating and the abuse of trust.”

Harris stole from the county, cheated taxpayers and abused the trust of citizens who elected him, Stuckwisch said.

“His defense is he didn’t know any better,” Stuckwisch said. “His defense is he thought it belonged to him and, even better, thought those hundreds of thousands of dollars were tax-free.”

Harris had a master’s degree and had even served as the president of the state’s circuit clerk association at the time, Stuckwisch said.

“He’s a smart man,” he said. “He knew what he was doing.”

Defense attorney Harris Barnes said a man with Harris’ character would not have stolen from the county intentionally.

“Burnell has made some mistakes,” Barnes said. “He has served a s circuit clerk for 24 years, and until this trouble came along, he didn’t know what trouble was.”

Barnes said Harris was unprepared to deal with the stresses of the office when he took the job in 1984 at 20 years old.

“He tried to do things of which he was incapable,” Barnes said. “We call it accounting. It was something for which he had no training.”

Harris could face fines or jail time.