Columbia, SC (WLTX) - Former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts has received a sentence of one year and one day in federal prison for his role in an alleged scheme to help illegal aliens housed at the county jail avoid federal detection.
Judge Terry Wooten handed down the penalty just after midday Monday at the federal courthouse in downtown Columbia. In addition to the jail time, Metts must pay a fine of $10,000, and when he's released, he'll be on probation for two years.
"I'm highly disappointed in the judge's decision but I'm not questioning his decision, he is the judge," Metts said afterward. "I'm sure he did what he thought was right under the circumstances. I'm going to go ahead and deal with this in a very positive way. I'm going to serve my time, put it behind me, and move on with my life in a very positive way once I get this sentence out of the way. It's been a long, long period of time but at least now we have closure and we're going to move on with our life."
Metts did not take questions from reporters.
The penalty was somewhat of a surprise, since both the defense and prosecution had told the judge they both felt jail time was unnecessary. The maximum penalty he was facing was 16 months behind bars.
"We certainly hope the results of today's proceeding help the citizens of Lexington County restore their faith that law enforcement is being operated in a manner with integrity and not by a system of a good old boy network that does favors for people's friends," said federal prosecutor Jay Richardson.
In a final presentation to Wooten in the hours before sentencing, Metts made an emotional plea to be spared from jail time, at one point breaking down in tears and saying that if he went to prison he "wouldn't come out alive."
Metts also apologized to his family, the sheriff's department, and the community for his actions, which he characterized as a terrible mistake. He said that he had let everyone down, and that his indictment last month was the worst moment of his life.
His attorneys also showed a video of people in the community vouching for Metts' character, and the judge received 100 letters written on the sheriff's behalf.
In a 52-page filing last week, Metts' attorneys said their clients age and health (Metts is 68) and his long career defending the law should be considered.
Metts signed a document saying he won't appeal the ruling.
The ruling ends a 10-month long legal process that ultimately brought down the career of one of the longest serving public officials in state history.
Last June, a federal grand jury handed down a 10-count indictment against Metts, who had served as sheriff since 1972. He was accused at that time of taking bribes from friends to interfere with the proper federal identification and processing of certain illegal aliens at the Lexington County Jail.
Two men--46-year-old Danny Frazier and 47-year-old Greg Leon-were named as the people who gave the bribes. Both of them have been been indicted by a state grand jury in connection with the case, and are still awaiting trial. Frazier is a former Lexington Town Councilman who resigned earlier this year, while Leon owns a group of Mexican restaurants in the Midlands.
The inmates in question were employees of Leon.
On December 17th, Metts and his lawyers entered into an agreement with federal prosecutors to plead guilty only to the harboring charge back on December 17th. In that deal, Metts would have only received probation.
But the judge rejected the deal, saying the charge didn't meet the qualifications for offering a deal that included probation only. Prosecutors then restructured the agreement to not specify a penalty, and the judge accepted that plan on December 30th.
Metts had been sheriff since 1972. He started out as dispatcher with the agency in 1967. He was suspended from office immediately following his indictment, and resigned from office on December 16th, one day before he was set to enter his original plea agreement.
"It has been my honor and privilege to have served the citizens of Lexington County as their Sheriff for the past forty-two years and as a law enforcement officer for the past forty-eight years," he wrote to Governor Nikki Haley in his letter announcing his decision.
Lewis McCarty, a retired lawman who'd served as an assistant sheriff under Metts, was appointed by the governor to serve as interim sheriff. Last week, Jay Koon won a special election to become the new leader of the sheriff's department, and took the oath of office last Friday.