For the second time in two weeks, former Lexington County Sheriff Jimmy Metts will try to enter a guilty plea in U.S. federal court Tuesday morning.
His first attempt to plead guilty, on Dec. 17, was rejected by U.S. Judge Terry Wooten, who said a proposed plea agreement prohibited giving Metts any prison time for the felony to which the ex-sheriff wanted to plead guilty.
Wooten’s rejection of that no-prison plea deal – agreed upon by both the U.S. attorney’s office, as well as Metts’ defense attorneys – surprised both legal teams and drew wide public attention. Judges rarely reject plea agreements.
Wooten told the lawyers Dec. 17 that federal sentencing guidelines require that a person who pleads guilty to the felony charge Metts wanted to plead guilty to – especially a public official such as Metts – should get a a minimum sentence of 10 to 16 months in prison.
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.
The new proposed deal contains no language that would prevent Wooten from imposing a prison sentence, if he deems it appropriate, according to that agreement. It was made public last week.
Other counts of a 10-count June indictment against Metts will be dismissed if the judge allows him to plead guilty Tuesday. They charge Metts with offenses related to taking bribes to let illegal immigrants out of the Lexington County jail. For several years, that jail also has been a federal holding facility of illegal immigrants, most of them from Mexico.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Wooten is expected to question federal prosecutors Jay Richardson and Jim May about the evidence they have to prove Metts is guilty of the charge linked to harboring undocumented immigrants.
It remains to be seen how much detail the judge will ask for, and how much prosecutors will disclose.
Metts is the fourth South Carolina sheriff since 2010 to face a potential prison term in the federal court system. Two of the previous three were sentenced to prison, and one is awaiting sentencing. The other sheriffs are:
• Howard Wells of Union County. In 2010, Wells was sentenced to three months in prison for avoiding income taxes.
• E. J. Melvin of Lee County. In 2010, Melvin was sentenced to 17 years in prison for crimes connected to running a drug trafficking ring.
• Michael Johnson of Williamsburg County. In September, a federal jury found Johnson guilty of wire fraud conspiracy in connection with running an identity theft scam. Johnson is slated to be sentenced in the first part of 2015.
In state court in May, former Chesterfield County Sheriff Sam Parker was sentenced to two years in prison after a jury found him guilty of misconduct in office and embezzlement.
Also in state court, two other sheriffs in recent years have dodged prison sentences:
• Saluda County Sheriff Jason Booth, who in 2012 pleaded guilty to misconduct in office for misuse of inmate labor. He received a $1,000 fine and five years’ probation.
• Abbeville County Sheriff Charles Goodwin, who in 2013 pleaded guilty to misconduct in office for accepting cash kickbacks in office. He was sentenced to five years’ probation.
Prosecution and defense lawyers Monday declined comment on Tuesday’s plea hearing.
If the judge rejects Metts’ latest plea, his trial in federal court in Columbia is scheduled to start Jan. 12.