The man who had been South Carolina’s longest-serving sheriff was sentenced Monday to one year and one day in prison after pleading guilty in a corruption scheme.
U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten also fined former Lexington County Sheriff James Metts $10,000.
Metts, 68, had been the county’s top lawman for more than four decades when he was indicted last year. Prosecutors said he took money from a restaurant owner in exchange for keeping employees from being arrested for being in the country illegally.
Originally indicted on 10 charges, Metts agreed late last year to plead guilty to harboring people who were in the country illegally.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys said they did not think Metts needed to go to prison. He previously reached a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to one count — conspiracy to harbor certain aliens. The charge carried up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but it would have given Metts three years of probation instead.
Prosecutors said the agreement was fair because Metts stepped in only for two people charged with traffic offenses who had no criminal record.
But Wooten refused to accept the deal. Federal guidelines for that felony charge call for five months to 16 months in prison, and Wooten said it bothered him that Metts would not face any prison time.
Days later, Metts and prosecutors signed a second agreement making no mention of a sentence recommendation but also agreeing to drop the remaining nine counts if he cooperated.
In court Monday, Metts made an emotional plea to Wooten, saying that life as he knew it ended with his indictment and that he had already suffered severe punishment because of the shame of disappointing constituents, his family and supporters, several dozen of whom were in the courtroom.
“Being sheriff was my life,” Metts said. “I regret having made a mistake, but no man is perfect.”
Metts’ lawyers said their client’s age and multiple health issues, including diabetes and coronary artery disease, would make prison hard on Metts, and that it would be difficult — and expensive — for prison officials to administer his more than a dozen daily medications behind bars.
But Wooten disagreed, saying that federal prison officials are fully capable of attending to his health needs.
“I just don’t find that he’s elderly or infirm,” Wooten said. “Mr. Metts was the law. He was the sheriff. And his conduct did not promote for the law.”
Defense lawyers also lauded the former sheriff’s charitable accomplishments, saying that allowing him to serve probation with community service obligations would keep Metts out of prison and also help the community. Wooten said Metts’ record speaks for itself but wasn’t enough to keep him from serving any time in prison.
Metts, who was allowed to stay out of prison until he’s assigned a facility, told reporters after court that he was disappointed but respected the judge’s decision.
“I’m going to serve my time and put it behind me,” he said. “At least now we have closure.”
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.