Seaton: Mountain Anger Conceals Doctored Prosecution Agreement

When a defendant walks on criminal charges following a horrendous crime or tragedy, the outrage mob heads to the streets or social media crying foul play and the lack of fairness in the courts. This anger, seething in the Smoky Mountains, conceals a troubling revelation. Someone doctored a prosecution agreement giving Sevier County DA’s the authority to prosecute crimes in federal parks, and no one’s talking about it.

Aggravated arson charges against the boys, ages 17 and 15, were dropped Friday in part because 4th Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn did not have authority under a 1997 agreement between the state and federal government to prosecute crimes committed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The park was left out of the 1997 agreement, which granted both state and federal authorities the power to prosecute crimes committed on federal lands within Tennessee. That meant only federal authorities could level charges for crimes committed in the park. That omission was discovered during Dunn’s attempt to prosecute the boys.

 National parks are federal land. That means absent an agreement like the one former Governor Don Sundquist reached with the Feds giving local law enforcement power to prosecute crimes in national parks, the US Attorney’s office is left with the job.

Someone spotted the scrivener’s error and attempted to correct it. They did so by redrafting the 1997 agreement, placing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park somewhere in the center of agreed-upon lands, and attaching the original 1997 signature page. This “move along, nothing to see here” approach didn’t pass legal muster.

In February 2002, the exact same document was filed with the secretary of state – with one exception. Someone added the park, tucking it in the middle of the list of 10 properties cited in the 1997 agreement. There was no new signature from Sundquist, whose term ended later that year, or the director of the National Park Service. Instead, the signature page from the original 1997 agreement was attached.

The 1997 agreement required written approval from both governments before any changes could be made and new signatures attesting to that approval. Without that approval, the park could not be added, and state prosecutors remained without jurisdiction over crimes committed in the park.

Jimmy Dunn really wanted to prosecute the two boys spotted lighting matches and dropping them on the Chimney Tops hiking trail. Public outcry meant Dunn started with the harshest offense he could: aggravated arson. Without the authority to prosecute, Jimmy Dunn had no choice but to let the boys go.

Dunn concluded his office was bound by the 1997 original agreement and, therefore, could not prosecute the Anderson County teenagers for the Chimney Tops fire.

The decision was good and principled. It was also the least palatable for the public seeking vengeance after the fire that claimed lives and destroyed countless memorable destination locations for people across the country.

With the national perception that Gatlinburg is still in ashes, the tourist destination is suffering the secondary effects of economic loss. If people don’t go to theme parks and dinner shows, the town’s residents dependent on that money can’t pay their bills.

It’s been said 2017 is the year of misdirected anger. Those who lost loved ones, homes, and memories to the Chimney Tops two fires have the right to be angry over those losses. Casting that anger on two teenage boys involved in stupid teenage antics isn’t the best place to direct that anger.

Reserve that anger, if you must, for the unknown, unnamed soul who thought themselves above the law to sneak the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into an agreement between federal and state governments. If you must seek vengeance, demand an inquiry in Nashville for a release of the document and the name of the person who doctored the original agreement.

Justice in this scenario requires finding the people who found themselves enough above the law to tamper with an agreement between the federal and state government, slipping it into the Secretary of State’s records like nothing happened. It means someone in Davidson County speaking up about the amended 2002 agreement, why the agreement was doctored, and holding that party accountable.

That day is likely to never come. Governments have a storied history of protecting those among them who commit bad deeds. People affected by the tragic, unforeseeable fires will blame anyone and anything but the real culprit: bureaucratic negligence.

Nature has moved on. The mountains are healing. Gatlinburg’s residents, driven with resolve and surrounded by a community that loves them, continue moving forward day by day. Perhaps the best course of action for the rest of us is to follow their example.

Sometimes quelling the fires of outrage is the best method of achieving true justice.

H/T Jamie Satterfield

5 thoughts on “Seaton: Mountain Anger Conceals Doctored Prosecution Agreement

  1. Richard Kopf

    Chris,

    I really enjoyed your post. But I have a question.

    Sorry if my question is dense. Can’t the feds prosecute the case? Additionally, it seems to me that doctoring an agreement with the federal government is worth a federal grand jury inquiry if nothing else.

    All the best.

    RGK

    PS. December 30, 2016, still remains a day of infamy in these parts.

  2. John Barleycorn

    What’s not to like about descriptive at a party?

    You gotta let your hair down and go there when you are going there though. It’s fun you’ll like it.

    Go Chris!

    Only trouble is your host might water down your drinks. But don’t you worry, I bet your host keeps his good hooch above the stove.

    Don’t tell that guy that should have been in Hamburg in the streets doing research, instead writting posts while the host was away auditioning for America’s Got Laws the other day.

  3. CLS

    Judge:

    Yes, the Feds can still prosecute the case. There’s talk of the Feds prosecuting the case.
    I don’t think it’s going to happen, for two reasons.
    1. These are two teenage boys. While their antics ended up costing millions in property damage and 14 dead, I’ve known Feds to be a touch loath to prosecute juveniles. At least around here.
    2. One of the lawyers representing a kid has opined there’s no way to get to beyond a reasonable doubt in this case because of the doctrine of intervening causes, and I’m nodding my head at his logic.

    A person could expect kids lighting matches in a national park in drought conditions would start a fire. No one saw the 60 MPH winds that blew embers from the park into Gatlinburg coming, not even the local meteorologists. No one could predict park officials would choose to initiate a “controlled burn” on Chimney Tops. There’s too many factors blocking a straight line of culpability to the boys.

    Federal prosecutors, I gather, don’t like to try cases where there’s a damned good chance they won’t win. This is one such case.

    With regards to your PS, I respectfully dissent that was the “Battle of New Orleans” you predicted. Nebraska put up a hell of a fight. The Vols had something to prove, and Josh Dobbs didn’t want to disappoint his mom in his last Bowl game before going pro.

  4. Joseph

    >Casting that anger on two teenage boys involved in stupid teenage antics isn’t the best place to direct that anger.

    It is difficult to me to understand why someone who lost a loved one to a wildfire would be “misdirected” in directing their anger at the suspected arsonists. The scrivener, directly or indirectly, didn’t cause anyone to die. He invalidated the prosecution after the fact. The moral culpability of a perpetrator is not affected by whether someone botches his case.

    1. Ken Mackenzie

      Chris used “defendant”. Joseph chose “perpetrator”. The distinction matters. So does the distinction between anger about the fire, and anger about the miscarriage of justice.
      If people are angry that the system failed, that’s not the defendants’ fault. An arsonist is responsible for a fire, but the kids accused of arson are not responsible for the collapse of this prosecution.
      If people are outraged by the failure of the system, their outrage should be directed not at the kids, but at the lazy forger who caused it to fail.

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