COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts appeared before a judge Tuesday in an attempt at a second plea deal. The federal judge accepted the plea but has to review the agreement before he makes a final decision on a sentence.
The disgraced ex-sheriff pleaded guilty to a charge of helping to harbor illegal aliens.
Much of the plea agreement is the same as one submitted earlier this month, but this most recent agreement makes no recommendation on a sentence, including leaving the possibility of prison time on the table. The government has agreed that a sentence of three years of probation was an appropriate resolution for Metts, but Judge Terry L. Wooten will make the final determination.
The charge carries a possible 10-year prison sentence, but the recommended range is 10 to 16 months.
The first proposal, denied by Wooten in mid-December, would have allowed Metts to plead guilty to one of 10 counts of bribery in exchange for a sentence recommendation of three years of probation, meaning he would avoid serving time behind bars.
Metts is charged with taking bribes from a restaurant owner in exchange for preventing the deportation of some of his employees who were in the country illegally.
Evidence presented at the change of plea hearing established that beginning in September 2011, Metts agreed with others – on the phone and in person – to assist illegal aliens incarcerated in the Lexington County Detention Center and subject to immigration processing pursuant to a cooperative federal immigration program. The former sheriff admitted on four occasions to making calls which led to those immigrants being released from jail. In doing so, Metts and his co-conspirators knew these illegal immigrants were present in the United States illegally, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors offered an example to outline the case against Metts: On September 16, an illegal immigrant was arrested. After Metts received a call from his co-conspirator the next morning, Metts intervened on behalf of the illegal alien, prosecutors said. Based on Metts' early intervention, this alien was released on a state bond prior to being identified or processed by federal immigration authorities as reflected in the federal immigration logbook with the notation, "Release per Sheriff Metts."
"Prior to June he was Sheriff James Metts, the 42-year veteran Sheriff of Lexington County," United States Attorney Bill Nettles said. "When we finish, he will leave this courthouse Jimmy Metts, the felon, and the citizens of Lexington County can move forward. This result would not have been possible without the ongoing substantial cooperation to combat public corruption among an array of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies; the South Carolina Attorney General, Alan Wilson; and my office."
Similar to the last plea deal, there is no clause stating that Metts has to cooperate with the state or testify against other defendants.
The conviction ultimately suspends several of his civil liberties including having the ability to run for any public office.