Former Richland County jail guard Robin Smith awaits sentencing after pleading guilty Wednesday to beating a handcuffed homeless man classified as mentally ill.
Smith, 38, probably will be sentenced in about two months after U.S. District Court Judge Joe Anderson accepted the plea of a civil rights violation in an agreement reached with prosecutors.
Prosecutors are recommending a sentence of up to two years,.
Anderson took the recommendation under consideration pending required pre-sentencing checks on Smith.
Federal officials “will aggressively prosecute those who cross the line to engage in acts of criminal misconduct,” assistant U.S. Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels said.
Bill Nettles, the U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, promised to crack down on guards whose “conduct crosses the line between lawful use of force and an abuse of authority.”
Those comments came after Smith’s plea.
Smith displayed “remarkably early acceptance” of responsibility for using excessive force and cooperated with investigators, assistant U.S. attorney Beth Drake said during the plea hearing.
The beating occurred about 6:30 a.m. Feb. 11 when Smith went to a cell at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center to check on the condition of Robert Sweeper III, who was being detained there, she said.
Sweeper was on suicide watch after being classified as nonviolent, mentally ill and incoherent, federal records say.
He started to wiggle when Smith attempted to put his second hand in handcuffs and “that’s what led to the escalation,” Drake said.
Sweeper was at the jail after an arrest for trespassing after being found sleeping in the doorway of a University of South Carolina classroom building by university police, according to a lawsuit pending against Richland County.
His injuries from the beating included two broken ribs, a collapsed lung and fractured vertebrae, according to the lawsuit seeking payment of damages to Sweeper.
He stayed in the jail four days without medical treatment and nearly died of his injuries, according to an investigation by sheriff’s deputies and FBI agents.
It’s unclear how the beating was discovered and if any of it was recorded on jail cameras. No discussion of those issues occurred in court proceedings Wednesday.
Six other guards were fired in the wake of the beating for not informing supervisors of the incident, jail officials have said.
Smith said nothing beyond terse replies to questions from Anderson about his understanding of the consequences of bypassing a trial and subsequently pleading guilty. His lawyer, I.S. Leevy Johnson, declined comment afterwards.
After the investigation, Smith was fired and charged with assault and battery. Federal officials then accused him of civil rights violations.
As part of the plea agreement, federal prosecutors recommend that state officials not go forward with assault charges against Smith.
County Council members are looking at changes in jail operations in response to the beating, with recommendations from consultants expected in March.