JACKSBORO, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee preacher who used poisonous snakes in his religious practices won't face criminal charges. But he also won't get back the 53 serpents wildlife officials seized from his Tabernacle Church of God.
It makes no difference that a grand jury declined to indict Andrew Hamblin on Wednesday; the snakes are contraband, "so we can't hand them back," Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokesman Matt Cameron said.
"If a drug user is acquitted, you don't give the drugs back to him," Cameron said. "It's a similar situation."
This past fall, Hamblin appeared on the National Geographic Channel reality show "Snake Salvation" dancing while holding rattlesnakes and copperheads. That appearance is what wildlife officials say tipped them off. Hamblin was charged with possession of Class 1 wildlife, a species inherently dangerous to humans. The misdemeanor offense is punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail, plus a $2,500 fine.
The preacher pleaded not guilty at his November arraignment and told reporters he intended to fight the charges on religious freedom grounds. He is among a small group of Christians who practice snake-handling based on a Bible passage in which Jesus tells his followers of signs that will accompany those who believe. The signs include being able to pick up serpents without being harmed.
On Wednesday, the grand jury took the unusual step of granting a request by Hamblin to address the panel. Members later declined to indict Hamblin, prosecutor Lori Phillips-Jones said.
Phillips-Jones said her office could present the case to the grand jury again in the future if there is new evidence.
The snakes seized from Hamblin's Tabernacle Church of God were taken to the Knoxville Zoo. Cameron said the zoo officials say 32 of the snakes have died from parasites. He said the remaining 21 snakes are not healthy enough to be released into the wild and also cannot be kept with other captive snakes because of the parasites. He said the wildlife agency is working with veterinarians to see what options are available.