Judge denies request for new trial by man convicted in murder of Dolly Gouge 30 years ago

Published 7:31 pm Thursday, September 7, 2017

On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the murder of Dolly Gouge, a judge has denied a motion seeking a new trial by the man convicted of killing her.

Ricky Lynn Harris, 61, of Carter County was convicted of first-degree murder on May 4, 1988, in connection with the September 8, 1987, disappearance and death of his mother-in-law, Dolly Gouge, of Elizabethton. He was sentenced to life in prison following his conviction.

Earlier this year, Harris filed a Writ of Error Coram Nobis with the Carter County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office asking the court to set aside his conviction and release him from prison based on an error made during his trial regarding testimony about DNA evidence.

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According to District Attorney General Tony Clark, a couple of years ago the U.S. Department of Justice sent out letters to jurisdictions who had prosecuted cases involving hair sample testing completed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation during a certain time frame. According to the letter from the Department of Justice, some forensic examiners had testified offering expert opinions on the DNA testing of the samples that were not supported by or went beyond the bounds of the science that was available at that time, Clark said.

“I’ve got eight of these cases,” Clark said. “One of the first I received was Ricky Harris.”

Harris himself obtained records related to the Department of Justice’s advisory and subsequently filed the motion seeking the court to set aside his conviction.

One of the pieces of evidence admitted during Harris’ trial was a hair sample which was collected from his vehicle. At the time of his trial, forensic experts testified the hair came from Dolly Gouge.

After receiving the letter from the Department of Justice, Clark said he had his staff retrieve the sample used as evidence during Harris’ trial and sent back to the FBI crime lab for analysis. Using new technology, FBI forensic scientists performed both nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing on the hair sample. Clark said the tests confirmed the hair belonged to Dolly Gouge.

“The likelihood of it being from someone else is 1 in 110 Million,” Clark said. “That’s pretty substantial, and it was found in his vehicle.”

While the testimony regarding the hair sample was an important part of Harris’ trial, Clark said it was not the state’s entire case.

“There was so much other evidence in the case,” Clark said.

According to Clark, witnesses testified that Harris had been seen at Gouge’s home not once but twice on the morning she disappeared. That same day, three witnesses testified to seeing Gouge at the location where Gouge’s body was later discovered.

On Thursday, Judge James F. Goodwin of Sullivan County, who presided over the hearing, heard arguments and testimony in the case. Clark said not only did forensic scientists testify about the new testing of the evidence but Harris himself took the stand.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the Goodwin denied the motion by Harris to set aside his conviction and order a new trial. As part of his ruling, the judge declared that if an error occurred during the trial regarding testimony on the hair sample it was not significant enough to have affected the outcome of the trial to the point a different verdict could have been rendered if the evidence had not been presented.

Clark said Harris has the right to appeal Thursday’s ruling and if he does the appeal would be heard by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals.

At the time Harris was convicted, a life sentence was 30 years under state sentencing statutes. He was first eligible for parole in 2008 according to information from the Tennessee Department of Corrections. Clark said the Tennessee Department of Probation and Parole has denied two requests for parole from Harris. Harris is eligible to apply for parole again in 2020.