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By DAMON LAWRENCE
The sound of clanking shackles were replaced by terms of endearment.
“I love you,” Rocky Houston said to his wife, Nancy, moments after he walked freely out of the Roane County Jail.
After nearly three years behind bars on murder charges, Rocky and his older brother, Leon, returned to their South of the River community on Thursday after being released on bond.
“Tomorrow they’re going to be sick as dogs because they’re eating real food,” said the brothers’ sister, Lisa Burris.
The Houstons were thankful as they paused outside the jail for a moment before being ushered home.
“I’d like to say I appreciate everybody’s support and their prayers,” Rocky said. “It’s God’s will that we’re alive. That’s all I got to say. I appreciate their prayers and their support. We’ve had many friends that supported our family through this.”
Roane County Sheriff Jack Stockton and Chief Deputy Tim Phillips made a trip to the Scott County jail to pick up Rocky, while a Roane County sheriff’s deputy brought Leon from the jail in Loudon County.
“Thank God for my family and friends that’s helped us through this,” Leon said.
Stockton said he had a casual conversation with Rocky during the drive back to Kingston.
“Mr. Houston is excited about going home to his family,” the sheriff said.
As exciting and emotional as Thursday’s reunion was, Rocky and Leon still face the possibility of being separated from their family again. Both have some serious charges hanging over their heads that could bring a life sentence if found guilty.
The brothers are accused of gunning down Roane County Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Jones and his ride-along passenger Mike Brown.
Jones and Brown, a former lawman, died in a shootout outside Leon’s Barnard Narrows Road home on May 11, 2006.
The state claims the men were killed in cold blood after Jones showed up to arrest Rocky on an outstanding warrant.
Prosecutors have had two chances to prove that to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. They failed each time. A mistrial was declared in Leon’s trial last summer after the jury announced it was hopelessly deadlocked.
Rocky’s December trial was also declared a mistrial, although the judge ruled that Rocky was rightfully acquitted on the most serious charge in Brown’s death.
The confusion came after the jury found Rocky not guilty on some charges and couldn’t reach an agreement on others.
Judge James “Buddy” Scott determined the not-guilty verdicts returned on the lesser charges did not count, but he upheld the one returned on the first-degree premeditated murder charge against Brown.
Scott approved a bond reduction for the brothers in January and lowered Rocky’s bond to $400,000 and Leon’s to $302,000.
However, their release was thrown into limbo after Scott abruptly and unexpectedly stepped down from the case in February with some of the conditions for release still unresolved.
Satisfied that all conditions could be met, Special Judge David Hayes, who replaced Scott, signed off on an order last week that cleared the way for Rocky and Leon’s release.
Stockton said the brothers were fitted with the electronic monitoring devices before they left the jail on Thursday.
James Logan, Leon’s defense attorney, described their release as only partial freedom.
The brothers have more than a dozen conditions they must comply with while out on bond.
“They are very limited in their conduct,” Logan said. “They are very limited in their activities and they are limited in where they can go.”
Leon was scheduled to be retried this month, but the March 16 trial date was shelved when Scott stepped down.
No new trial dates have been set. A status hearing has been scheduled before Hayes this week.
“We’re going to win,” Rocky proclaimed.
Rocky’s distrust of law enforcement and local officials is well documented, but Stockton has taken steps to try and stave off potential problems.
“I talked to Mr. Houston on the way down here, and I told him that he had an open line of communication with me,” Stockton said.
“He has my cell phone number. If there’s any instances at all and he’s told me that he would contact me if he had any dealings with the public, any harassment by law enforcement or people of the general area.”