Knox County Commissioner Jeff Ownby pleaded no contest Friday morning to a charge of public indecency. In exchange for a sentence that will wipe the conviction from his criminal record, the judge ordered Ownby to issue a description of his behavior as part of a written apology that will become part of the public record.
Ownby was arrested in May 2012 after police observed him engaging in
oral sex with another man at Sharp's Ridge Park in North Knoxville.
To avoid any conflicts of interest within Knox County, the courts brought in Judge William Brewer from Blount County and assistant district attorney William Brownlow Marsh of Cocke County to handle Ownby's case.
Ownby's lawyer, Greg Isaacs, asked the judge for a sentence of judicial diversion. That would allow the conviction
to be expunged from Ownby's permanent record. Special appointed
prosecuting attorney William Brownlow Marsh of Cocke County opposed the
Ultimately, Judge Brewer decided to grant Ownby diversion because he wanted to be able to place conditions on the sentence. Denying
diversion would mean Ownby could simply pay a $500 fine and leave with
the conviction on his record.
Brewer said Ownby must write a letter of apology that
describes what took place at Sharp's Ridge in the type of verbiage the
prosecution would use rather than the "carefully crafted" and vague
terms the defense has used to this point. Until now, Ownby has not made
any specific statements about the incident other than through his
attorney's comments that the commissioner was "remorseful" for his
"The citizens of Knox
County need an apology that explicitly describes what he did," said Brewer. "He's going to apologize to his wife, his family, his friends, his
colleagues and most importantly his constituents and the citizens of Knox
County. He will cause this letter to be spread on the minutes of the
next meeting of the Knox County Commission.
The letter was due to Brewer by noon Friday. It was then distributed to local media outlets.
In the letter Ownby writes, "I would like to apologize for having Oral Sex in
Sharp's Ridge Park on May 24, 2012." He goes on to "ask the citizens
of this County for their forgiveness and know that I will not be in any
other trouble as long as I live."
(Click here to read a pdf of Ownby's full written apology)
While on the stand Friday, Ownby discussed the consequences of sexual act at Sharp's Ridge. Ownby lost his job at Comcast after the arrest and said he remains unemployed other than part-time work for a real estate company.
"It has created a big hardship. I did seek counseling afterwards to deal with this and what I had done," said Ownby during court Friday.
Commissioner Mike Hammond said he is not aware of a previous case where a judge ordered a commissioner to submit something as part of the official minutes of a commission meeting.
"Obviously this is a means of him admitting it and I guess you could say
in a way a form of embarrassment that he would have to do this and it
would be part of the minutes. We'll have a discussion about it at our
next commission meeting and get the law director to tell us what our
County Commissioner Richard Briggs said he stands by earlier
statements that public officials should be held to a higher standard.
Briggs said he believes Ownby should step down as commissioner.
Commissioners R. Larry Smith and Tony Norman wrote the judge letters of support on behalf of Ownby. The next Knox County Commission meeting is scheduled for May 28.
Judge Brewer also required Ownby to continue counseling, pay court costs, maintain his search for gainful employment, and must remain 100 yards away from Sharp's Ridge Memorial Park. The words "Free Jeff Ownby" was seen spray-painted on a small building at Sharp's Ridge on Friday afternoon.
In May 2012 police also arrested the man with Ownby, John McCracken of Powell. McCracken is due back in criminal court this September.