JACKSBORO, Tenn. (AP) -- A Tennessee preacher who used poisonous snakes in his religious practices won't face criminal charges. 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 return them," Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokesman Matt Cameron said.
"If they confiscated drugs from a drug dealer and he was exonerated, he wouldn't be getting his drugs back," Cameron said. "This is 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, which is a misdemeanor 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.
The snakes seized from Hamblin's Tabernacle Church of God were taken to the Knoxville Zoo. Zoo Curator of Herpetology, Michael Ogle, said in a statement that many of the snakes brought there were sick. Thirty-two have died from parasite infection and stress from being housed in quarters that were too small for them.
"Unfortunately, there is no successful treatment for these pathogens, which could be fatal for any other snakes, captive or wild, that were exposed to them," Ogle said.
The remaining 21 snakes cannot be released into the wild. Both Ogle and Cameron said they are working with veterinarians to see what other options are available.