A man who spent the last year and a half in the Morgan County Detention Center on a host of aggravated child molestation charges was released from jail last Tuesday after the alleged victim recanted and all charges against him have been effectively dropped.
Percy Harris, 51, of Madison, had been charged with 10 counts including aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation, rape and aggravated sexual battery and child molestation. At the time of his arrest, an 11-year-old female had alleged that between the ages 6 and 8, Harris had molested her.
According to defense Attorney Guy Notte, Harris walked free of the Morgan County Detention Center after Jeff Burks, assistant district attorney, Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, issued a “motion to enter nolle prosequi” (“will no longer prosecute”) against Harris. In Burks’ motion, filed in Morgan County Superior Court, Burks defends the state’s charging of Harris, citing the allegations during a forensic interview in July, 2019 and again after Harris was indicted by a Morgan County Grand Jury in January 2020.
However, Burks writes in his motion, “On Thursday, April 1, 2021, the victim called the District Attorney’s office to state that (Harris) did not touch her inappropriately and on Monday, April 5, 2021, she reiterated the same to the District Attorney’s office in person, fully recanting her previous statements. Despite there being probable cause to arrest and the State being fully prepared to explain the victim’s testimony with an expert, the latest events have made it impossible for the State to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Notte said Harris was set to go to trail on the charges on April 19 and that he has spent the last year poring over mental evaluations of the victim and found what Notte said were red flags in interviews. The victim, he said, suffered from physical abuse from her mother and in 2016 was removed from the mother’s custody.
At the time of Harris’ arrest, he had completed a 49-month sentence in Butner Federal Prison in Butner, N.C. Harris had pleaded guilty to one count use of facilities in international/state and foreign commerce to transmit information about a minor. Harris was among six men caught in the 2016 “Southern Hospitality” operation that was established by a wide scope of law enforcement agencies including the Madison Police Department, Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, GBI and FBI where an advertisement on a website known for soliciting sex was placed. Reports at the time of the operation stated that officers made it clear that the people were coming to Madison to engage in sex with a 14-year-old girl. Harris pled guilty to the charges on April 18, 2017, and was set to be released on federal probation December 2019. However, the new charges violated his federal probation and he was immediately detained in the Morgan County Detention Center until last Tuesday.
Notte said he was prepared to defend Harris in court and said the victim, who is now 13-years-old, has suffered years of abuse. “She was manipulated and abused by the grandmother to say what she did. That child was suffering inside.”
Notte said Harris was charged after the child’s maternal grandmother, Linda Lackey, initially made the allegations regarding the abuse. Lackey said she stands by her allegations and that dropping the charges is unjust.
“All of it is lies,” she said of the motion to dismiss. “I never manipulated (the victim). The day she told us, she broke down and told us everything. I wouldn’t dare to manipulate a child. That is not my character.”
Notte and Burks’ motion both state that some type of interaction between Lackey and the child two weeks ago moved the child from Lackey’s custody to that of Harris’ relatives in Morgan County. The motion did not specify the interaction, but stated “… after the incident with this grandmother, DFACs changed the victim’s placement and put her in the home of a relative of (Harris).”
Notte said the allegations began to falter during a Thanksgiving visit between the victim and Harris’ relatives in 2019. “She tells the family what she said to police is a lie and (Harris) never touched her inappropriately.” Following the March 8 event between Lackey and the victim, the victim was removed and came to relatives in Morgan County. “She starts telling family members again that what she said was a lie,” Notte said. Notte said the victim also told Assistant District Attorney Burks that “it was all a lie. The child comes in and says it was all a lie.”
“She fully recanted her previous statements,” Notte said.
Notte alleged that Lackey had coached the child into making the allegations. “She was tired of it. Tired of the manipulation,” said Notte.
Lackey refutes the charge. “I did not lie about anything. We didn’t brainwash her. This little girl is not well. She got around her people in Morgan County and somebody tricked her into recanting.”
Notte said as part of his prepared defense, he requested and received subpoenaed mental evaluations from Superior Court Judge Terry Massey. Notte said the victim has been evaluated at least four different times by various mental evaluation agencies and “this child is suffering.”
He also said the incident reiterates a cautionary tale for the justice system. Harris, Notte said, was facing life in prison.
“Just because a person is arrested or indicted does not mean he’s guilty,” said Notte.
“How many times have you heard… “well, he was indicted, wasn’t he. Sixteen to 23 people found probable cause that he was guilty.’ Well, no, not that he was guilty, that there was probable cause that a crime was committed.”
Secondly, Notte said, review of evaluations and interviews with family members led Notte to the assertion that the child’s testimony had been coerced. “This child did not lie maliciously,” said Notte. “She was manipulated and abused… to say and do what she did.”
“Thank God she said enough is enough and I’m going to tell the truth,” said Notte.
Lackey said she hopes the child continues to receive treatment. “I pray she gets the help that she needs,” she said.
Notte said following the March 8 event with Lackey, the child has been placed again in foster care.