In a surprise blow to both prosecution and defense lawyers, U.S. Judge Terry Wooten refused Wednesday to go along with a proposed no-prison plea deal for former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts.
Metts is back on track to go to trial Jan. 12 on 10 counts of accepting bribes and misconduct in office for allegedly interfering with the handling of illegal immigrants at the county jail he once supervised.
“The plea agreement in this case is rejected,” Wooten said at the end of a 90-minute hearing at U.S. District Court.
It’s unusual for a judge to reject plea deals, since they are crafted by both prosecutors and defense attorneys.
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But in announcing his decision, Wooten – a former state and federal prosecutor appointed as a judge in 2001 – made it clear that letting Metts avoid prison on such a serious charge would be significantly lighter treatment than given others.
“Conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens is a serious charge,” Wooten said. He also noted “the defendant is a public official – I can’t ignore that.”
A sentence that didn’t include a prison stint would also be at variance with federal sentencing guidelines, which call for 10 to 16 months in prison for the crime to which Metts was willing to plead guilty, Wooten said.
“The guidelines do not call for a probationary sentence,” Wooten said. The guidelines exist, he said, to “avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities.”
“In cases where guidelines call for incarceration, seldom have I given probation,” Wooten said.
Prosecutors and Metts’ lawyers presented a plea deal whereby Metts would get three years’ probation and no time in prison.
The rare cases in which Wooten said he gave probation are when the offender played a minor role in a crime or when a technical legal violation occurred.
“This simply is not that type of case,” the judge said.
Wooten ordered the full set of 10 corruption charges against Metts to proceed to trial Jan. 12.
The decision was a blow to both the defense and to prosecutors, who seemed ready to wrap up the case.
Metts’ lawyers are Sherri Lydon and Scott Schools. Prosecutors are assistant U.S. attorneys Jay Richardson and Jim May. U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles was also in the courtroom.
Although Metts’ lawyers told Wooten that the ex-sheriff was ready to plead guilty and that the proposed plea agreement has been made public, the proposal cannot be introduced at trial.
Meanwhile, primary elections for the post Metts held 42 years will be held March 3, with a general election April 21.
Metts, 68, who has been on suspension without pay, retired from office Tuesday. That step came a day after the anniversary of his appointment as sheriff in 1972.
Prosecutors and Metts left the hearing with little comment.
Wednesday’s hearing was the first time prosecutors revealed key details of their investigation that led to the indictment of Metts on June 17.
Richardson told the judge that Metts was a key player in a scheme in which restaurateur Greg Leon relayed word to Metts to spring illegal immigrants who worked at his eateries from the county jail that Metts supervised.
At the time, Metts’ jail played a key role in a Homeland Security program that identified and processed illegal immigrants in the Midlands.
Illegal immigrants with criminal records or who were otherwise dangerous then would be sent to other jails where they could be deported. Non-dangerous illegal aliens were let go on bond.
According to Richardson, Leon used former Lexington Town Councilman Danny Frazier as a go-between with Metts or Metts’ command staff on two occasions in the fall of 2011 to get immigrants who worked for Leon out of jail.
Frazier is a longtime political ally of Metts who served briefly as a paid part-time consultant to the ex-sheriff in 2012.
On two other occasions, Metts tried to get such immigrants out of jail but didn’t move fast enough because they illegals had already been processed, Richardson said.
“Once they are identified, there’s nothing anybody can do,” Richardson said.
Metts not only accepted cash payments for his role but suggested ways to improve the scheme, Richardson said. The amount of cash paid wasn’t revealed.
Prosecutors offered the plea deal with no prison time because the scheme was very limited, Richardson said.
Neither of the illegal immigrants released turned out to be dangerous, Richardson said. One had been in jail for not having a driver’s license, he said.
Evidence in the case includes not only testimony from Leon and Frazier but also Metts’ staff as well as a jail log book that has entries saying Metts or an unidentified member of what was his command staff ordered the releases, Richardson said.
Asked by Wooten about Metts’ motive in the case, Richardson referred to the bribery charge cited in the indictment. He added that defense attorneys would dispute that.
Metts’ lawyer Lydon told the judge that “the government has serious proof problems with regard to many of the issues.”
For one thing, Lydon said, the charges “rest on the testimony of two witnesses who have serious, serious credibility issues.”
Leon’s and Frazier’s stories vary and both have been caught in lies, she added.
Moreover, there are no recordings of such conversations, she said.
The media and local gossip hyped the Metts investigation, Lydon said, leading the public to believe that there is more wrongdoing than there actually is.
“I don’t know what it is about a society that loves a fall from grace, but in this case, the fall has not been big,” Lydon told the judge. “It has not been a big enough fall for some, but I assure your honor the sheriff understands the gravity of the fall, leaving a job he loves and will be a convicted felon.”
Wednesday’s deal was the same one that prosecutors offered Metts since before his June 17 indictment on 10 counts related to bribery and improperly freeing illegals from his jail were made public, Richardson said.
After rejecting the proposed deal, Wooten told both sides “you’d better get ready for trial,” slated to start Jan.12.
An embedded fixture in the heavily Republican county that is a mix of suburbs, small towns and farms, Metts was regarded by political leaders as being able to stay in office as long as he wanted.
A federal grand jury indicted Metts on multiple counts of accepting bribes to let what lawyers say are illegal immigrants from Mexico out of jail. Since being indicted, Metts has insisted on his innocence.
His agreement to plead guilty was only made public Tuesday and came after intense negotiations between prosecutors and Metts’ attorneys that would have dropped most charges against him.
In the past, Metts had publicized his efforts to win approval by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to identify illegal immigrants at his jail – a process that would lead to their deportation.