Former Richland County jail guard to be sentenced Wednesday for beating mentally-ill homeless prisoner

jmonk@thestate.comApril 8, 2014 

— Robin Smith, a former Alvin S. Glenn jail guard, is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday morning in federal court in Columbia.

Last December, Smith pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights violation in the February 2012 beating of a homeless Columbia man who had been classified as mentally ill, nonviolent and was handcuffed.

The man almost died as a result of injuries Smith inflicted on him, law enforcement officers have said.

The case received widespread attention, not only because of the brutality of the beating but as to how it underscored the neglect of many homeless and mentally-troubled people in Columbia and South Carolina.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Smith’s family and friends – who have filed nine character letters with the court asking Judge Joe Anderson for mercy – may speak on his behalf.

The letters say that Smith is a good family man with three young children, and his actions were totally out of character.

Smith’s attorney, I.S. Leevy Johnson, declined to comment Tuesday.

A U.S. Justice Department lawyer, Nicholas Murphy, is coming down from Washington, D.C., to appear for the hearing, according to legal papers on file. He will be handling the case with assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake.

The maximum sentence Smith, 37, could get is up to 10 years in prison, according to federal papers. He pleaded guilty last December before Judge Anderson. Anderson will sentence Smith on Wednesday.

The victim was identified in other federal and state filings as Robert Sweeper III, 52. He has filed a civil lawsuit against Richland County. It is still pending.

“I suspect we will have a trial by the end of the year,” his attorney, Dick Harpootlian, said Tuesday morning..

Sweeper mostly likely will not testify at Wednesday’s hearing, Harpootlian said. Sweeper still suffers from PTSD and is being treated by doctors and psychiatrists for various physical and mental issues, Harpootlian said.

Following Smith’s arrest last year, six other guards were fired – not for taking part in the beating, but for not informing supervisors about what they knew of the incident, jail officials have said.

Also, Richland County formed a study committee that is paying some $100,000 for a top-to-bottom audit of the jail by a jail consultant. The study has not yet been completed.

Sweeper’s case involved far more than just a beating.

Not only did a half-dozen other guards know about the beating in a special medical unit and keep silent, Sweeper stayed in the jail four days without medical treatment and nearly died of his injuries. In that unit, prisoners are supposed to be monitored for physical and mental problems.

After Sweeper was finally transferred by ambulance to Palmetto Health Richland, medical personnel who suspected foul play notified the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, which then began investigating. The sheriff’s department brought the first charges; then the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Columbia entered the case.

Sweeper was sleeping in the doorway of a University of South Carolina classroom building in February 2012 when university police spotted him and placed him under arrest, according to a lawsuit he later filed against Richland County. The charge was trespassing, and USC police took Sweeper to the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.

“My client shouldn’t have been at that jail to be begin with,” Harpootlian said. “He should have been at a special mental health facility “

Once at the jail, Sweeper was classified as nonviolent and “mentally ill and generally incoherent” and was in a special cell.

Federal papers in the case say that Smith “twisted Sweeper’s wrist and arm, and kicked Sweeper in the upper body."

“During the assault, Sweeper was lying on the floor of the cell with one hand cuffed,” the federal plea agreement says.

“Mr. Sweeper was not combative and posed no threat,” the agreement says. “There was no legitimate law enforcement purpose for (the) defendant’s level of use of force.”

The federal civil rights charge brought against Smith is identical to the one a former Kershaw County deputy was indicted on in 2010. In that case, a jury found Oddie Tribble guilty of beating an inmate who was left with a broken leg. The beating was captured on videotape. U.S. Judge Cameron McGowan Currie sentenced Tribble to five years in prison.

Since Smith is pleading guilty, he is likely to get less than five years in prison – perhaps only two years, according to the agreement.

As part of the agreement deal, federal prosecutors will recommend to state prosecutors they not go forward with state assault charges against Smith.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344

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