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.