Federal Judge Terry Wooten on Tuesday set a new plea hearing date for ex-Lexington County Sheriff Jimmy Metts next Tuesday in the U.S. courthouse in Columbia.
Wooten last week rejected a proposed plea deal submitted by prosecution and defense lawyers that would have all but guaranteed Metts, 68, wouldn’t serve any time in prison, despite pleading guilty to a felony.
But Monday, Metts’ lawyers and the prosecution submitted a new proposed plea deal that contains no guarantee Metts will escape prison on the charge of conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens. The charge is a felony that normally carries a maximum of 10 years.
In his new proposed plea deal, Metts is offering to plead guilty to one of the 10 counts in 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 the judge allows him to plead guilty, charge Metts with taking bribes to let illegal aliens out of prison.
Last week, after news of Metts’ first no-prison proposed plea deal became public, critics attacked it as giving him special lenient treatment. Wooten nixed the deal, saying it was too lenient and posed a conflict with federal sentencing guidelines, which require a minimum 10-month sentence for the charge to which Metts wanted to plead guilty.
In rejecting the no-prison plea deal between prosecutors and the defense team, Wooten also pointed out that the charges were serious and that Metts was a public official.
After that public hearing, federal prosecutors went on the offensive. They filed a motion asking for Judge Wooten to order John Tate, the sheriff’s department’s lawyer, to talk to federal investigators about what he may know about wrongdoing by Metts.
“It has come to the government’s attention that Tate may have information related to the criminal acts committed by the defendant (Metts),” the government’s motion said. Tate left his $84,020-a-year post at the sheriff’s department last June, one day after Metts was indicted on multiple felony counts related to taking bribes to let illegal immigrants out of his jail. No one will say if Tate was forced out or quit on his own.
On Sunday, according to court records, Metts signed his new proposed plea agreement, dropping his requirement that Judge Wooten keep him out of prison. The plea agreement also was signed that day by assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson and Metts’ attorneys, Sherri Lydon and Scott Schools.
Like the old proposed plea agreement, the new one contains no provisions requiring Metts to tell federal investigators what he may know about other people’s possible illegal activities. And the new plea agreement does not require Metts to take a lie detector test. Plea agreements in federal court frequently contain those provisions.
If this plea deal falls through, Metts’ trial in federal court is scheduled to start Jan. 12.