“He pushed him so hard that his feet flew up and he hit the ground like a sack of taters.”
That’s how a key witness in the ongoing public corruption trial of Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, and two of his deputies, last week described the force with which Sheriff’s Lt. Johnny Neal shoved a handcuffed man in a November 2018 arrest incident.
The witness, former Fort Lawn volunteer fire chief Allen Culp, testified he briefly pondered objecting to Neal’s treatment of bystander Kevin Simpson but decided not to.
“Better him going to jail than me, so I just kept my mouth shut,” Culp told a federal jury of 12 and three alternates in federal court in Columbia on Wednesday.
Culp’s testimony — which prosecutors are using to illustrate what they say is alleged excessive force that violated the civil rights of a bystander at a county accident-crime scene — was one of several high points in last week’s parade of witnesses against Underwood, Neal and former Deputy Chief Robert Sprouse.
Other high points included testimony from bystander Kevin Simpson, whom Neal is alleged to have shoved, and an admission by a top sheriff’s assistant that she “whited out” a payment voucher to hide the fact that Underwood and Sprouse used county money to pay for their wives to fly first class air fare to Reno to attend a national sheriff’s convention.
In all, 17 witnesses testified during the opening week. The trial, taking place on the third floor of the Matthew Perry federal courthouse, is expected to go three weeks. Federal Judge Michelle Childs is presiding.
Underwood, Neal and Sprouse are pleading not guilty and are represented by veteran South Carolina defense attorneys. Federal prosecutors are from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, headquartered in Washington.
A 17-count indictment against the three former Chester County law officials cites a wide-ranging conspiracy including alleged civil rights violations, falsification of records, misuse of deputies to refurbish a barn on Underwood’s property, improper use of county money, theft of government funds and wire fraud.
Civil rights key issue in trial
Although the charges vary markedly, the conspiracy’s alleged common thread was that Underwood, Neal and Sprouse used their official positions to abuse power and “to enrich themselves..., cover up their misconduct and to obstruct investigations into their misconduct,” according to the indictment.
All the charges don’t apply to all three former law officers. For example, Underwood and Sprouse are alleged to have used county money to fly their wives to Reno, and Underwood and Neal are charged in a separate alleged scheme to skim money from a sheriff’s account, according to an indictment in the case.
All three were involved in a series of events concerning alleged violations of Simpson’s civil rights in November 2018. Neal’s major involvement came at the scene, and he, Underwood and Sprouse were also involved in a cover-up of their misconduct after Simpson’s arrest, according to the indictment.
On Nov. 18, 2018, near Simpson’s house on S.C. 9 in Chester County, dozens of emergency responders were arriving on the scene of a horrific car crash in which a man slammed into the car of an elderly woman, jumped out of his car and fled into the woods. A scene witnesses described as “chaotic” began to unfold as sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, EMS medics and a Medivac helicopter arrived. Deputies set up roadblocks and began a manhunt for the fugitive as rescuers worked to extract the woman — part of whose foot needed amputation — from her crushed vehicle.
The wreck took place about 100 yards from the mobile home where Simpson lived. He walked outside, took out his cell phone and began a video livestream with commentary on Facebook Live, he testified last week. The whole time, he was on his property, he and others testified.
“I never saw him (Simpson) on the road... I never saw him interfering,” Culp testified under questioning by federal prosecutor William Miller.
During his nearly half-hour livestream, played to the jury last week, Simpson is heard telling his virtual audience what is happening.
“Helicopter in the road,” Simpson says at one point. “This is Fort Lawn,” he says at another. The video closes at about 27 minutes with Simpson retreating to his porch, a brief argument between him and Underwood and then the sounds of scuffling.
Culp, the volunteer fire chief, had a good view of everything that happened because he had parked his fire truck, with its flashing lights, in front of Simpson’s one-story mobile home. Culp’s role included having his crew work with EMS to free the woman and keep clear a landing zone for the helicopter.
At some point, Underwood came on to Simpson’s property and the two began arguing, Culp testified. Simpson backed up to his front porch and “they started tussling... the sheriff was much bigger than Mr. Simpson,” Culp testified. “They fought and came down the stairs and they ended up in the yard.”
The smaller man was “scrappy” and put up a good fight, Culp testified. “The sheriff wrassled him down the steps and he was trying to put the handcuffs on him ... and Johnny Neal came over and helped.”
After the two law officers — both larger than Simpson — placed Simpson in handcuffs, they lifted him up, Culp testified. “He was raising Cain, saying ‘This is my (expletive) yard’!”
That was when Neal pushed Simpson so hard the smaller man flew up and hit the ground like a sack of potatoes, Culp testified.
“That really stuck in my mind — how his feet went up in the air,” Culp testified. “If you push somebody gently, their feet don’t come up.”
Under questioning by prosecutor Miller, Culp said at the time of the incident, Simpson had no weapon, posed no threat and was not interfering with the accident-crime scene. But, Culp acknowledged under defense questioning, Simpson was “yelling profanity” the whole time.
After the shove, Simpson lay on the ground without moving for two minutes, Culp testified.
Neal’s defense attorney, Andrew Johnston, pressed Culp on discrepancies in what he told FBI agents in pre-trial interviews and what he was now telling the jury.
In early interviews, Johnston told Culp, the fire chief had not used the phrase “like a sack of taters” and said Simpson only lay on the ground about 30 seconds, not up to two minutes.
“I don’t remember all I said — but I remember all I saw,” Culp insisted.
Culp also testified he could see the hurt look in Simpson’s eyes and in his face, but he didn’t see any visible injuries.
“Was it the look in his face or the look in his eyes?” Johnston demanded.
“Well, the eyes are on the face,” replied Culp.
After deputies helped Simpson get up, he ceased yelling.
“Apparently it had its effect because he wasn’t raising Cain any more,” Johnston told the witness.
Attorneys shape narrative
In trials, as prosecutors put up witnesses to make their case, defense attorneys often use cross-examination to underscore points favorable to defendants.
Often last week, defense attorneys used their cross-examination questions to elicit statements from witnesses about good deeds Underwood had done in his career and how the sheriff ran the department “like a family.” In their questions, the attorneys sometimes went on at length about how Underwood may have violated a county policy in flying his wife to Reno, but he hadn’t violated a law, and how the office of sheriff — an elected official — doesn’t come under normal rules governing county governments.
Defense attorneys also used their questions to explain that accident-crime scenes, such as the complex one where Simpson was arrested, can be chaotic places, and law officers at such times have to be able to focus and not be distracted.
And one defense attorney, Jake Moore, also called the jury’s attention to prosecutor Schulman’s pronunciation of Lancaster after she pronounced it LAN-caster with a distinct northern accent. The common pronunciation is LANC-aster. Lancaster County, just a mile or two west on S.C. 9 where the accident-crime scene happened, came up several times during questions.
At the start of the week, prosecutors Schulman and Miller rarely objected to the lengthy defense questions, which sometimes contained so much information they seemed to resemble testimony.
But by Friday, Miller and Schulman were objecting frequently.
For example, on Friday, during a cross-examination of former Chester County deputy Jonathan Cureton, about the accident-crime scene the night Simpson was arrested, defense attorney Moore began asking Cureton how Underwood prepared his men.
“He was very adamant about training,” Cureton told the jury. “I learned a lot from Sheriff Underwood.”
Moore then began to ask another question, prefacing it by talking about how important it is for officers to know how to to secure crime scenes.
Miller objected, telling Judge Childs that Moore’s questions should stick to what was happening that night.
Judge Childs agreed. “Go forward, forward,” she told Moore and Cureton.
To defense attorneys, however, cross-examination to elicit background is vital. Sometime the defense doesn’t put up many, or even any, witnesses. Thus, prosecution witnesses offer the defense the best chance to communicate the defendants’ side to the jury.
It is not known who the defense will use as witnesses or if the defendants will testify.
In an opening statement to the jury Monday, Underwood attorney Stanley Myers told jurors that Underwood had once been shot in the line of duty and also pledged that if they consider the whole picture, not just a narrow set of facts, they won’t find any crime. “Context” is crucial, Myers told jurors.
Besides Myers, Moore and Johnston, other defense attorneys include Gill Bell and Michael Laubshire.
(Reporter Andrew Dys contributed.)