Former SC Sheriff Underwood and deputies choose not to testify in corruption trial

John Monk, Andrew Dys
·3 min read

Former Chester County Sheriff Alex “Big A” Underwood and two former top deputies chose not to testify Wednesday in their ongoing federal public corruption trial.

Closing arguments by prosecutors and defense attorneys are scheduled to begin Thursday morning at the federal courthouse near downtown Columbia.

On Wednesday, the trial’s eighth day, attorneys for Underwood and two former deputies ended their case after putting up two people: a law enforcement expert and a former Chester County deputy. A 17-count indictment charges Underwood and his former deputies with a smorgasbord of varied crimes including that they used their offices for personal gain.

The case against Underwood, former chief deputy Robert Sprouse and former Lt. Johnny Neal will likely go to the jury later Thursday.

In criminal cases defendants can invoke their constitutional right not to testify, and U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs will instruct jurors they cannot hold the lack of such testimony against the defendants. In criminal cases, it is up to the government to prove their case “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Over the trial’s first seven days, federal prosecutors presented some two dozen witnesses.

Witnesses testified on the indictment’s charges, including alleged misuse of deputies to build a barn for Underwood, alleged civil rights violations, falsifying official documents, skimming money from the sheriff’s office and spending public money on first class air travel to Reno for the wives of Underwood and his top deputy, Robert Sprouse.

On Wednesday, it was the defense’s turn.

Former deputy Gerard Walls, who worked at the sheriff’s office in 2015 and 2016, told the jury how he worked at Underwood’s barn but was not ordered to do the work. And he did the work on his own time — not while on a deputy work shift, he testified.

“I decided to go out and help the sheriff,” testified Walls under questioning by Underwood attorney Stanley Myers.

Earlier in the trial, several deputies testified for the prosecution they worked on the barn during their deputy work shifts. They also testified they felt pressured to work on the barn.

The defense’s other witness, former Dorchester County Sheriff Ray Nash, was put up by Underwood attorney Jake Moore as an expert witness on sheriffs and law enforcement practices in areas such as the handling of money and proper procedures to follow when arresting a disorderly suspect.

In addition to serving 12 years as sheriff, Nash was a police chief in Irmo and a law enforcement consultant in Afghanistan and elsewhere. He testified he is being paid some $20,000 as a defense witness and has spent more than 100 hours preparing for this trial.

Nash testified sheriffs have wide latitude in spending office money. That’s because sheriffs, unlike other county officials, are not employed by the county but are state officials elected by county residents, he testified.

County government policies governing expenditure of public money do not normally apply to sheriffs and their offices, Nash testified.

By Nash’s testimony, defense attorneys were rebutting assertions made by the prosecution that Underwood and Sprouse mishandled sheriff’s office public money by flying their wives first class to Reno for a National Sheriffs’ Association convention. Prosecutors also had claimed Underwood and Neal improperly skimmed money from a DUI checkpoint program.

Asked by Moore about a hypothetical situation involving a bystander’s arrest at a chaotic crime scene — a hypothetical that is somewhat similar to a real event that is a focus of the trial — Nash testified circumstances dictate a suspect’s handling. That’s particularly true in an emergency setting, he testified.

In cross-examination, federal prosecutor Rebecca Schuman had Nash read from some of his training manuals, including one that said police need to have a good character and avoid “ego-power.”

“Lack of character can cause a lot of problems, right?” asked Schuman.

“Yes,” replied Nash.

One challenge prosecutors face in closing arguments: how to weave a coherent narrative in a case that involves so many unrelated scenarios. Defense attorneys are expected to argue the charges are flimsy if not out-and-out bogus.