NEWPORT — James Kenneth Porter, whose career as a judge included presiding over the Rocky Top murder case, died at his home Monday.
Porter was just a day shy of his 87th birthday at the time of his passing.
He served as a circuit court judge for the Fourth Judicial District form 1974 to 1993, hearing criminal and civil cases in Sevier, Grainger, Cocke and Jefferson counties.
“He tried so many murder cases,” said current Circuit Court Judge Rex Ogle, who was mentored by Porter early in his career.
The Rocky Top case was among the more infamous, drawing intense attention at the time and later getting featured on shows like City Confidential.
It involved a group of four people who killed two workers at the Rocky Top Village Inn in Gatlinburg on Sept. 13, 1986. The night clerk, Melissa Hill, and a security guard, Troy Dale Valentine, were brutally killed during an apparent robbery.
Porter would eventually approve the death sentence for Eddie Harris — known as “Tattoo Eddie” for the dozens of tattoos covering his body. That sentence would later be turned into three consecutive life sentences after mental health experts found he suffered a mental disability that disqualified him from the death penalty.
Harris died in prison in 2015 after a fight with an inmate.
His accomplices, Joe Demodica, Rufus Doby, and Kimberly Pelley, were also convicted or pleaded guilty in the case.
“That’s by far the biggest, most high profile case that I think happened in Sevier county,” Ogle said.
He recalled Porter as a judge who made sure attorneys in his court were prepared and on time to court.
“Failure to do either one could be painful,” Ogle said.
Porter was also a mentor to Ogle and other attorneys, and to the other judges that served on the circuit.
“Judge Porter impacted the lives of so many young lawyers,” he said.
“He always had time for the younger judges and was very gracious with his time and his advice.”
Porter gave two pieces of advice that Ogle said he’s carried with him throughout his time as a judge: never let anyone force him to make a decision before he feels like he’s got the information he needs to give a just verdict, and “When all else fails do your duty.”
In addition to serving as a judge, Porter represented Jefferson and Cocke counties in the state House of Representatives and also served as a state senator in the 88th General Assembly.
He was active in Cocke County politics, serving as chairman of the Republican party and chairman of the county’s election commission as well as county attorney during his career.
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