An embattled Knox County magistrate can breathe easier after a federal jury has found him not guilty of misappropriating more than $5,000 in county funds.
The prosecution and defense both rested Wednesday afternoon following three days of testimony that included current magistrates and former county administrators, as well as current Judge-Executive J.M. Hall. After an hour and a half of deliberation, the jury delivered the not guilty verdict before U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar.
Jerry “Rabbit” Cox, magistrate for Knox County’s third district, faced charges of misappropriating county property valued at $5,000 or more stemming from an investigation into Cox’s acts from June 1, 2013 to May 31, 2014. According to the indictment, Cox used his own truck to personally deliver county-owned gravel to private residences as well as directed county workers to install materials such as drainage tile on private property.
During the opening arguments, Cox’s attorney David Hoskins explained to the jury that they were not trying to decide if Cox was indeed guilty of abusing his position to benefit private property, but instead, the government needs to prove that Cox had cost the county more than $5,000.
“We don’t deny that Rabbit did not always do things by the book,” said Hoskins. “What we do deny is that in that timeframe, the government can’t prove that that Rabbit is responsible for $5,000 of misappropriation. So, be careful not to let talk of what happened in 2010, 2011, 2012 and so on, influence your decision.”
Hoskins was referring to evidence submitted by Assistant United States Attorneys Kate Smith and Kenneth Taylor.
When the investigation began in 2014, investigators began questioning those who worked with Cox as well as those who he worked with in the past, which included Darren K. West. West held the seat of Treasurer for the Knox County Fiscal Court for one term, from 2007 to 2011.
After his first term in office, Knox County Judge Executive J. M. Hall decided not to reappoint West to the position of treasurer, and instead he was transferred to the Knox County Road Department as an administrator. During this time, West recorded numerous conversations of employees without their knowledge. Four of West’s recordings were submitted as evidence against Cox. In them, Cox can be heard referencing use of his truck to haul gravel to private property, as well as implicating other magistrates. However, the recordings are outside the timeframe of the investigation and therefore can only be used to infer Cox’s intent or show character.
A previous hearing was held to determine if evidence outside the timeframe such as this could even be submitted in the trial. After hearing both arguments from defense and prosecution, United States District Judge Amul R. Thapar agreed on the stipulation that “at trial, when the government introduces evidence of Cox’s prior acts and the evidence refers to prior, subsequent, or undated conduct, the Court will instruct the jury not to consider that evidence to determine whether Cox’s alleged theft met the five-thousand-dollar threshold during the charged period.”
The prosecution then submitted numerous photos of graveled private driveways that were taken by John Bays, who ran against Cox in the 2014 election for magistrate in district three. In several of the photos, county-owned dump trucks can be seen supplying gravel to the residences.
When asked if this type of behavior happened frequently, West stated, “Rabbit was not a whole lot different from the other magistrates. However he may have done it a little more.”
As the trial went on into the second day, former employees of the Road Department took the stand to testify about the conduct within the fiscal court. Most of the witnesses admitted to having been instructed to deliver gravel to private properties. Many property owners themselves also took the stand, such as Artemus resident Jennifer Lawson.
When asked if she was aware that Cox had gravel delivered to her property in early 2014, Lawson explained that she did not keep records of gravel that was ordered.
“I don’t know if they were free, but they were delivered,” said Lawson. “My husband keeps track of that. It’s not uncommon for him to trade work for gravel.”
Prosecutors pressed Lawson on the stand, however she insisted that she was not sure where the gravel came from. When asked if Cox was still her magistrate, Lawson stated, “Yes. He is the best one we’ve had, matter of fact, in the past 19 years that I’ve lived there.”
The second day came to an end with the testimony of Robert “Beau” Alford. Alford assisted Bays’ 2014 campaign, during which he says he spoke to Lawson. Alford alleges that Lawson told him she would have to vote for Cox because, ‘gravel ain’t cheap.’ Lawson denied knowing who Alford was and was therefor unable to confirm or deny the conversation took place.
Testimonials continued Wednesday, including District Two magistrate Stacy Roark and Judge-Executive J.M. Hall, as well as several testimonies for the defense.
Cox faced a maximum of ten years in prison had he been convicted.