COLUMBIA - A plea agreement is in the works for an Orangeburg man accused of conspiring to kill a South Carolina prison guard in a hit orchestrated by an inmate using an illegal cellphone, attorneys said Wednesday.
During a brief hearing in federal court in Columbia, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Witherspoon said that he and an attorney for Sean Echols were still trying to work out the case and needed more time.
"We are trying to resolve it through plea negotiations," Witherspoon told U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Anderson Jr., who ordered the case delayed until later this year.
Echols, 30, has previously pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiring to murder a prison guard for $6,000. When he was charged with the federal crimes, Echols was already in state prison, sentenced to 25 years on armed robbery and assault charges following a 2011 arrest.
In 2010, Capt. Robert Johnson was a 15-year Corrections Department veteran who oversaw efforts to keep contraband such as cellphones out of Lee Correctional Institution. Johnson was shot six times early one morning at his Sumter home, and police say an inmate organized the hit using a cellphone smuggled into prison.
Johnson, who authorities have said was the first U.S. corrections officer harmed by a hit ordered from an inmate's cellphone, survived after months of surgeries and rehabilitation. Before retiring from the Corrections Department in 2011, he appeared alongside then-Gov. Mark Sanford and prisons officials to implore the Federal Communications Commission to let South Carolina jam the signals of cellphones being used illicitly by prisoners.
"I don't want someone else to go through what I've gone through," Johnson said. "I would like to tell the industry to come talk to me and get off their bottom dollar and do what's right, and that is block cellphones."
Johnson was not in court Wednesday. Corrections Director Bryan Stirling attended the hearing, sitting with the prison officers who had escorted Echols to the courthouse from the Columbia institution where he's serving his state sentence.
Authorities have not named the inmate who allegedly organized the plot to kill Johnson.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
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