JACKSBORO—Despite his 2012 guilty plea, convicted child pornographer Blaine Steven Covert could get the trial he claims he wanted all along.
Covert, 23, was escorted to the Campbell County Courthouse on Monday for a post-conviction relief hearing. He’s been a Tennessee Department of Corrections inmate since his plea.
Covert argues his plea to one count of aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor and one count of sexual exploitation of a minor was coerced and his former, private attorney, Michael Clement, of Clinton, was ineffective. Covert’s grandmother paid $15,000 for his defense.
Covert’s new attorney is Steve Hurst ,of LaFollette.
The court heard six witnesses — including Covert himself — testify about the ineffectiveness of Clement during the hearing. Assistant District Attorney Scarlett Ellis called only two witnesses — Clement and Mel Pierce, a forensic investigator with the Knoxville Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force.
Covert’s family — a cousin, both parents and his grandmother — all said Clement failed to investigate Covert’s previous mental health issues.
He had been in counseling since he was approximately 10 years old, according to his mother and father, Linda and Steve Covert.
The cousin, Ben Walker, is a former FBI agent. He said he was surprised there wasn’t more leniency in the case because Covert had no prior run-ins with the law.
“I thought the indictment just didn’t fit him as far as what he had done. He had not had any contact with the kids,” Walker said.
The initial indictment was 27 counts of aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor and sexual exploitation of a minor.
Walker also told the court he believed that a relative of Covert’s was the source of the pornography found on Covert’s computer.
Clement took the stand and called Covert an “unmitigated fool” for asking for a trial when he had already received a much lighter sentence through a plea deal.
Clement estimated the maximum sentence a jury could recommend would be more than 200 years in prison. Covert never expressed interest in going to trial, Clement said.
Covert confessed, Clement testified. At that point, he began working to get his client the lightest sentence possible.
“I have to tell you — everything I did was filtered through the light of ‘Did you do this? Yes, I did,’” Clement told the court.
In that, opined Judge E. Shayne Sexton, laid the problem.
While it is not unusual for attorneys to work on a plea deal once their client confesses guilt, Clement may have overlooked some potential defenses for Covert because of past mental health care, Sexton said.
Covert didn’t exhibit any signs of mental issues other than being anxious about prison, Clement maintained through the hearing.
“Quite frankly, I tried to do what was in his best interest,” Clement said.
Ultimately, Sexton granted the post conviction relief petition for a new trial. A date is expected to be set on Dec. 2, the next scheduled criminal court date.