A federal judge has rejected a proposed plea deal that would have given former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts only three years probation.
Metts had faced ten charges related to a pair of illegal immigrants that prosecutors say he released from the county detention center. The indictments had stated the sheriff did so after the suspected aliens’ employer paid him an undisclosed amount of money. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office had agreed to drop all charges but one — conspiracy to harbor aliens — in exchange for a guilty plea from Metts.
But U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten told both federal prosecutors and defense attorneys Wednesday that the proposed sentence of three years probation was much less severe than the 10-16 months that federal guidelines recommend. Saying the conspiracy count was a “serious charge,” Wooten noted it was extremely rare for probation to be granted where the guidelines require jail time. He instead ordered both sides to prepare for a trial on January 12. Jury selection will begin on January 5.
Under court rules, the rejected guilty plea cannot be used against Metts in his upcoming trial.
Neither side wished to comment after the decision, which appeared to catch both prosecutors and defense by surprise.
“We have consistently not spoken to media about this case or tried this case in the media,” Metts’ lead attorney Scott Schools told reporters gathered outside the Matthew Perry Courthouse in Columbia. “So we have no comment about the case. We will get ready for trial.” In previous filings, defense attorneys have insisted federal prosecutors are relying on unreliable witnesses. They maintained that Metts at worst did not notify the Department of Homeland Security about the releases because he did not realize it was required.
U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Bill Nettles did not say anything as his team walked out of the courthouse.
The indictments claim that Midlands restaurant owner Gregorio Leon would contact a “business liaison” with the Sheriff’s Department, to ask for help with employees who had been detained on immigration violations. The liaison (former Lexington Town Councilman) Danny Frazier would then arrange for Metts to receive cash in exchange for his help, prosecutors say.
Metts was suspended from office soon after the indictments were handed down in June. He officially retired from the office in a letter sent to Gov. Nikki Haley on Tuesday, after the guilty plea was submitted. Haley appointed Lewis McCarty to serve as acting sheriff in June.