Attorneys ask court for no jail time for ex-Sheriff Metts

Former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts walks outside federal court in Columbia in this December 2014 file photo.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — James Metts, who was South Carolina’s longest-serving sheriff until he pleaded guilty to corruption, should not serve any time in prison, defense attorneys and prosecutors say in court papers filed this week.

To support that argument, attorneys for Metts, 68, said in papers filed Wednesday that their client had dutifully served as Lexington County sheriff for more than four decades, helping protect countless individuals and serving his community.

“One would be hard pressed to find a case in which a defendant had done more in the way of charitable works than Sheriff Metts,” his attorneys said, noting that more than 100 people wrote supportive letters to the court. “He considered it his mission to improve the lives of the citizens of Lexington County.”

Metts has been allowed to remain free on bond until his sentencing, which is scheduled Monday. His attorneys also said their client suffers from multiple maladies, including diabetes and coronary artery disease, and that it would be difficult — and expensive — for prison officials to administer his more than a dozen daily medications behind bars.

“The complex interaction of Sheriff Metts’ illnesses and medications creates a risk that medical issues could be overlooked in prison and their consequences exasperated,” attorneys wrote.

Metts pleaded guilty in December. Federal prosecutors said he took bribes from a restaurant owner in exchange for releasing some of his employees who had been detained for being in the country illegally.

Initially, Metts reached a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to conspiracy to harbor certain aliens and be sentenced to three years of probation. Prosecutors called the agreement fair because Metts stepped in only for two people charged with traffic offenses who had no criminal record. Defense attorneys said the government’s case was weak but that Metts wanted to get the case behind him.

But a judge refused to accept the deal. Federal guidelines for that felony charge call for between five and 16 months in prison, and U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten — the same judge set to sentence Metts on Monday — said it bothered him that the former sheriff would face no prison time.

Days later, Metts and prosecutors signed a second agreement, this time making no mention of a sentence recommendation but also agreeing to drop the remaining nine counts if he cooperated. A separate pre-sentencing report has recommended that Metts serve between 10 and 16 months in prison.

Metts was the eighth South Carolina sheriff to be charged or investigated while in office since 2010. Of that number, seven have pleaded guilty or been convicted, and another died while under investigation. Only three of those sheriffs have been sentenced to prison.

A ninth sheriff is facing drunken driving and hit-and-run charges.