A judge on Tuesday dismissed criminal charges against the Gatlinburg, Tenn., police detective accused of making false statements during a hearing in the Ooltewah rape case.
Prosecutors charged Rodney "Floyd" Burns with two counts of aggravated perjury for lying during a Juvenile Court hearing in February 2016 for three former Ooltewah High School employees charged with failure to report child abuse.
But there was one problem with that February 2016 hearing, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz wrote. Juvenile Court didn't have "the statutory or constitutional authority" to hold it for the criminal charges the adults faced.
And if a court doesn't have jurisdiction to hold a proceeding, then nothing that comes from the proceeding is lawful. In other words, Burns' testimony cannot be perjurious in a court that doesn't have authority, Greenholtz reasoned.
Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston declined to comment Tuesday. As top prosecutor, Pinkston asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to look into Burns after he testified during that four-hour hearing and secured a two-count indictment against Burns in May 2016. According to the indictment, Burns testified there was "no rape or torture, no screams of anguish," even though he wrote in police reports that someone told him "the victim yelled out in pain."
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If he chooses, Pinkston can ask the Tennessee Attorney General's Office to appeal the decision and try to reverse the dismissal.
Burns' defense attorneys, on the other hand, were pleased with the outcome and defended their client's innocence.
"The Juvenile Court is to prosecute juveniles and in very limited circumstances they have authority over adults," attorney Bryan Delius said. "I can't speak to why General Pinkston did not take this case to the General Sessions Court in Hamilton County."
In his opinion, Greenholtz said he didn't want to criticize anyone involved in the prosecution. Throughout 25 pages, he explained that juvenile courts have limited powers created by the state penal code. They can hold hearings for a handful of child abuse charges, Greenholtz wrote, but not for the charges faced by the Ooltewah employees.
"The court's holding cannot be taken, and should not be taken, as any criticism whatsoever of the Juvenile Court or the District Attorney General," Greenholtz wrote in his opinion. "As the parties are aware, the court has taken some time to consider the legal issues arising in this case."
Indeed, Burns' attorneys raised a number of legal concerns over the past year.
Before the indictment, they filed a $300,000 defamation claim in March 2016 against Pinkston, an elected official, with the state commission. They claimed Pinkston never consulted with Burns before the 2016 hearing or read his full investigative file before accusing Burns of perjury and hurting his 25-year career in law enforcement.
That civil litigation will continue now that Burns' criminal case is dismissed, Delius said.
They said Pinkston should recuse himself because he had a conflict of interest with the defamation claim against him. They said Burns' statement never affected the outcome of the 2016 hearing because the employees were still indicted and prosecuted in Hamilton County Criminal Court. Records show two employees got their charges dismissed while a third accepted an alternative sentence program, completed community service and had his case expunged.
Finally, they said Hamilton County Juvenile Court was not the right venue to try a criminal case for three adult men, so any statements stemming from that proceeding needed to be dismissed. That was in December 2016, records show.
Greenholtz rejected the other arguments, but as recently as October, he was still grappling with the final issue. He set a trial date for February and said he would issue an opinion soon.
"It's what we felt like the court would do," Steve Greer, one of Burns' attorneys, said of Tuesday's order. "We felt like we were right in our analysis, and we felt like the court would see that. It's a very well-reasoned opinion."
Burns continued to work during the proceedings, Delius said. He was one of the first responders during the deadly Gatlinburg fires nearly one year ago and helped investigate fraudulent charities that sprang up in the aftermath.
"Detective Burns looks forward to continuing to serve the people of Gatlinburg," Delius said.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.
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This story was updated Nov. 28 at 11:45 p.m. with more information.