Ex-Lexington County Sheriff James Metts might do a stint in prison after all.
On Monday, Metts and his lawyers, along with federal prosecutors, filed a new proposed plea agreement – but this time without demanding that U.S. Judge Terry Wooten keep him out of prison by giving him a no-prison probationary sentence.
In his new plea deal, Metts, 68, is offering to plead guilty to one of the 10 counts of the indictment handed down last June by a federal grand jury – conspiracy to harbor certain aliens, according to federal court filings.
Other counts – which will be dismissed if Metts does in fact plead guilty – charge Metts with taking bribes to let illegal aliens out of prison.
Unlike the first plea deal, the new deal contains no binding agreement requiring Wooten to let Metts avoid prison. Wooten has not set a date for a hearing on the new plea deal.
Last week, in a public hearing concerning the first plea deal, Wooten said he likely would sentence Metts to prison if the ex-sheriff were to plead guilty. In rejecting the no-prison plea deal, Wooten pointed out Metts was a public official and the crime he was pleading guilty to carried a recommended guideline of at least 10 months in prison.
Wooten’s denial was widely applauded by many around the Midlands who said the rejected plea deal smacked of special treatment for Metts, especially compared with other deals by the U.S. attorney’s office. Social media commentary overwhelmingly favored the judge.
“It was a real sweetheart deal,” said S.C. Common Cause executive director John Crangle, who said he was pleased Wooten nixed the first deal. “I was surprised the U.S. attorney was willing to sign on to that. It was to be predicted the judge would reject it.”
Lonnie Randolph, president of the S.C. NAACP, said that some in the African-American community are watching to see whether Metts would manage to do what so many black defendants can’t do – stay out of prison. “Hats off to the judge,” Randolph said, explaining that people want equal justice for defendants.
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles could not be reached for comment, and Scott Schools – one of Metts’ attorneys – declined comment Monday.
Other elected officials who have pleaded guilty to felonies have gotten at least some time behind bars, Crangle said. “With a no-prison deal, the public felt Metts really wasn’t being punished.”
In recent years, in public corruption cases, at least two elected public officials have pleaded guilty and gotten prison sentences:
• Union County former Sheriff Howard Wells got three months in prison in 2010 after pleading to lying to federal investigators about taxable income.
• Former Columbia city councilman E.W. Cromartie II was sentenced to a year and a day in prison in 2010 for income tax evasion and structuring bank deposits to avoid income tax payments. Cromartie wound up serving 10 months in prison.
The aliens Metts is accused of harboring were the ones the government accuses him of letting out of his jail and taking cash bribes to do so.
Metts’ jail was a special facility that processed thousands of illegal aliens for registration or deportation. It was specially accredited by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Unless a guilty plea is accepted by the court, Metts’ trial is set to begin Jan. 12. It is expected to last at least two weeks.
If Wooten accepts Metts’ guilty plea this time, defense and prosecution lawyers in the case – who might have spent the holidays plowing through 40,000 pages of evidence in the case – will have an easier time of it.
Wooten’s rejection of last week’s guilty plea took both defense and prosecution attorneys by surprise. They told the judge that he should accept a deal signed off on by both sides, since they are familiar with strengths and weaknesses of the case.
Both sides made it clear that if the deal was not accepted, they were ready to go to court and fight it out before a jury.
Metts’ attorney Sherri Lydon told the judge that the prosecution’s two key witnesses – former Lexington town councilman Danny Frazier and Columbia area restauranteur Grigorio Leon – have “serious, serious credibility issues” because both have been caught in lies. But assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson told the judge that the prosecution could prove Metts took bribes.
According to the new plea deal, lawyers in the case worked over the weekend on it. It was signed Sunday by Metts and lawyers in the case, including Nettles.