Not guilty verdict comes in hog farm trial

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Bedford County hog farmer who was accused of fouling four Marshall County household wells was found not guilty on pollution and vandalism charges by a five-man, seven-woman jury at the close of a three-day trial here on Wednesday.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation never proved that what Charlie Haskins was spreading got into the water source or into Sutton Creek, according to four jurors who spoke on a condition of anonymity. One of the men said he was concerned about "retribution."

"You'll get yours, Charlie Haskins," Cathy Dexter cried out as she left the courtroom after commenting on the jurors' decision; "They don't know what we went through."

Cathy and Greg Dexter paid for showers at Henry Horton State Park until the inn closed for the winter and they installed a shower at their Farmington business. Appliances had to be replaced. A neighbor moved out of state. Marshall County is borrowing $409,000 and has a $213,000 federal grant to extend city water to the Clay Hill Community.

"Ma'am, you need to leave the courthouse," Deputy Aaron Erwin told Cathy Dexter after her outburst. "One more comment and you'll be placed in jail."

She turned from the courtroom door and went down the stairs.

"The state's theory is infiltration" of hog manure spread on a field to fertilize wheat and, earlier, corn, Haskins' defense attorney Ray Fraley said. Chad Augustine, assistant manager for TDEC's field office in Columbia, "was the state's only witness" on that issue, Fraley said in closing arguments, emphasizing Augustine conducted a civil, not a criminal investigation.

Fertilization "is not disposal," Fraley said. "It's usage."

Furthermore septic tank field lines are buried and manure was spread on the surface, he said, also pointing to a nearby dairy farm as a possible source of what fouled water wells.

Haskins was calm on the witness stand, describing how he had grown up on the farm that had been in his family for generations. Haskins bought the farm in 1978, and started with a "few hogs," expanding to hundreds of hogs over the next two decades.

"People would snurl their noses" when they heard I was a hog farmer, Haskins said. "Nobody likes the smell," but they like to eat pork, he added.

In response to Fraley's questions, Haskins described his decisions about spreading the hog manure on his fields in the fall of 2008, telling how the manure had been diluted by water flushing it from the pit under the hog pens, diluted again by rainwater as it waited in the outdoor tank, and further diluted as it was put in the tank to be spread.

"You're really diluting manure way down," Haskins concluded.

The defense's expert witness was Dr. Shawn Hawkins, assistant professor of animal waste management at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

Questioned by Fraley, Hawkins called blaming Haskins' spreading of manure for the pollution of the wells "an extraordinary explanation for what happened."

Reaction to the verdict was sought from TDEC. Hawkins emphasized that whatever Haskins spread on the surface of his land would have had to travel down to bedrock through four feet of soil, and then sideways 1.8 miles to the wells.

"There's no scientific evidence to link Haskins' application of waste to the contamination of the wells," Hawkins asserted.

Questioned about the witness who said "pure hog urine" came out of her faucet, Hawkins said, "I do feel for her, but it's simply not possible for that to be pure urine."

To wrap up the expert's testimony, Fraley asked, "In your professional opinion as a molecular biologist, did Charlie Haskins cause the pollution of those wells?"

"No, I don't believe he did," responded Hawkins. "It would be a very unusual event. Anything's possible, but you have to see proof."

TDEC was assisted by Assistant District Attorney Richard Cawley.

TDEC was asked for a reaction to the not-guilty verdict.

"Because there are ongoing legal proceedings in Bedford County as well, we would not be in a position to comment at this time," TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart said Thursday. "By law, we simply cannot provide a statement regarding ongoing legal proceedings."

Reckless endangerment was also alleged, but those charges were dismissed during the trial in Lewisburg, according to Fraley. Haskins didn't knowingly and willfully hurt his neighbors. Nor did he do so intentionally, if he was responsible, another point Fraley hammered home.

Fraley, however, whittled away at the charges before the trial, challenging alleged permit violations and the state withdrew those, apparently realizing jurisdictional problems since Haskins farm is across the line in Bedford County and the polluted wells are in Marshall County where he was being tried.

Reckless endangerment was also alleged, but those charges were dismissed, Fraley told the jury, explaining Haskins didn't knowingly and willfully hurt his neighbors. Nor did he do so intentionally, if he was responsible, another point Fraley hammered home.

The criminal standard of guilt beyond a shadow of doubt is high, and Fraley showed the jury a cartoon thermometer explaining that if guilt is highly likely, that's not enough to convict.

Cawley closed for the state after TDEC's counsel, Troy McPeak, presented the case.

Environmental regulations exist to prevent pollution and they put the burden on the farmer, Cawley said.

"Nobody asked him to expand," the assistant district attorney told he jury. TDEC helped Haskins deal with issues, but he didn't follow the environmental protection plan he submitted for his hog farm, therefore he acted knowingly and willingly, Cawley said. "He knew the result of spraying too much and he did it anyway."

Tribune staff writers Karen Hall and Clint Confehr collaborated on this report.