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Defense attorney Michael McGovern didn’t contest two of the three elements in the federal government’s case against Rocky Houston:
One, Houston is a convicted felon; and two, the firearms the government alleges Houston was in possession of traveled in interstate commerce.
McGovern, however, argued vigorously against the third element —the allegation that his client possessed firearms.
“Nobody’s going to get on that witness stand and say I took a gun out of Rocky Houston’s hands,” he told jurors during opening statements.
The trial started at the federal courthouse in Knoxville on Monday.
Houston is charged with being a convicted felon in possession of firearms. He was arrested on Jan. 11, 2013, at United Community Bank in Kingston.
Afterward, federal agents searched his home on the family farm South of the River and found an arsenal of weapons.
Two other residences on the property — the farmhouse and older brother Leon Houston’s trailer — were also searched.
McGovern said Rocky Houston had been living at the farmhouse because he and his wife were having marital problems.
“Guess how many guns they found in the farmhouse?” McGovern said. “Zero.”
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, working in conjunction with the Roane County Sheriff’s Office, had a secret camera installed on a public utility pole on Dogtown Road in October 2012 to investigate Houston’s alleged possession of firearms.
“Let’s just call it what it is,” McGovern told the jury. “It’s a spy camera.
“The Houstons didn’t know they were being spied on,” McGovern added. “If they were mowing the yard, the camera was watching. If they were talking to friends, the camera was watching.”
McGovern said the camera even caught Leon Houston relieving himself.
“Pretty creepy,” he said.
The government alleges Houston was seen on camera multiple times possessing a firearm.
“Wait until you see these videos,” McGovern said. “They’re atrocious. You can hardly make out the people in these videos.”
McGovern said the poor video quality makes it difficult to determine if Houston is carrying a firearm.
“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” he said. “It’s a farm. Maybe he’s carrying a rake. Maybe he’s carrying a cattle prod.”
McGovern said if it “kind of looks” like a gun, that’s not enough for the government to prove its case.
“Even if it is a gun, does it meet the definition of a firearm?” he said. “Nobody ever went up and took it and looked at it.”
McGovern also said the guns that were confiscated during the search of the property didn’t have any of Houston’s fingerprints on them.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Jennings said the secret camera was necessary to conduct surveillance in the Ten Mile community where the Houston farm is located.
“This is a rural area of Roane County,” he said. “If you’re not from that area, you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb.”
During the video surveillance, Jennings said Rocky Houston had a tendency to carry his weapons a certain way.
“If he had a rifle in his possession, it was always slung over his left shoulder,” Jennings said.
Jennings said Houston’s favorite weapon was a Ruger mini 14 rifle.
“I know that rifle when I see it,” ATF agent Jason Dobbs testified. “It’s a very distinct firearm. I recognized it immediately.”
Dobbs, who was the lead ATF agent on the case, said Rocky Houston had a common routine. After leaving his home in the morning, Dobbs said Houston would spend most of his days in and around Leon Houston’s trailer, where several firearms were also found.
“His brother’s guns are his guns,” Jennings said. “Wherever he is on this farm, the defendant has weapons at his disposal.”
Jennings also said the government didn’t need to take a gun out of Rocky Houston’s hands to prove possession.
“He was almost always armed with some kind of weapon,” Jennings said.
Clips from the video surveillance were shown to the jury Tuesday morning. It was difficult to clearly see the face of the person Dobbs identified as Houston.
Dobbs said he could tell it was Houston, because the subject wore a brown jacket and had gray hair.
Jennings finished his questioning of Dobbs before the jury broke for lunch Tuesday. McGovern was to start cross-examination of the witness in the afternoon.
Dobbs was the second witness to testify at the trial.
The first, Roane County Circuit Court Clerk Kim Nelson, testified about Rocky Houston’s 2010 conviction for felony evading arrest.
McGovern did not cross-examine Nelson.
A jury of 10 women and four men was seated to hear the case.
Houston was originally indicted on 14 counts of being a convicted felon in possession of firearms. All but one of those charges were dropped in January, when Houston's trial was originally scheduled.
A mistrial was declared after McGovern informed the court that a juror whom Houston wanted challenged during jury selection was inadvertently not challenged and seated on the jury.