Harris court appeal rejected

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 23, 2008

NATCHEZ — The U.S. Fifth Circuit of Appeals has rejected former Jefferson County Circuit Clerk Burnell Harris’ appeal to his July 2007 conviction.

Harris’ conviction included three counts of embezzlement from a local government that receives federal funds by an agent of the local government, two counts of money laundering and four counts of tax evasion.

In a ruling filed Tuesday with the federal circuit court Tuesday, a three-judge panel rejected Harris’ argument that his trial was flawed outright because of its timeliness.

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A motion for a new trial based on anything other than new evidence must be filed within seven days of a jury’s verdict.

In his appeal, Harris argued that he should not have been prosecuted for embezzling federal funds because the circuit clerk’s office did not receive federal funds.

In their ruling, however, the justices stated that the prosecution was valid because Harris embezzled money that belonged to Jefferson County, and Jefferson County had received more than $10,000 in federal grants during the time he embezzled the money.

Harris also argued that his rights were violated when the court rejected his request for a new trial because of juror misconduct and news coverage during the trial. He argued that jurors he had wanted struck from the jury pool were seen with newspapers containing an “unduly prejudicial” article about the trial during proceedings.

The justices also noted that the court record shows Harris knew of the newspaper incident at the time of the trial and voiced an opinion about it, but that he did not seek a mistrial at that time “nor did he request that the district court specifically inquire whether any members of the jury had read the newspaper article.”

In other words, the justices concluded that Harris waived any right to claims of juror misconduct because he knew of the juror’s alleged actions at that time but did not act upon that knowledge.

The justices also rejected arguments that Harris was not acting as an agent of Jefferson County when he committed the embezzlements.

Harris claimed that evidence was improperly admitted against him at trial, but the justices said Harris did not identify said evidence and so waived his right to object to it.

In October 2007, Harris was sentenced to six years in jail and three years probation. He was also ordered to pay $447,086.07 in restitution.

His sentence began in January.