Wars of words took center stage Thursday in a Columbia federal courtroom as competing prosecution and defense portrayals of former Chester County Sheriff Alex “Big A” Underwood and two former deputies clashed in closing arguments in Underwood’s corruption trial.
After closings, which came on the trial’s ninth day, the case went to the jury around 4 p.m.
In a nearly 90-minute closing argument, federal prosecutor Rebecca Schuman told the jury that Underwood‘s crimes over the years even included cheating his own deputies by skimming money they deserved to get in a DUI checkpoint scam.
“This is a case about all the ways that these defendants have abused their power and abused the trust of the people of Chester County,” Schuman told the jury.
“These defendants lied and they bullied and then they lied some more,” Schuman said.
Also on trial are two of Underwood’s former top deputies — Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse and Lt. Johnny Neal.
All three are charged with being part of a multi-pronged conspiracy involving a variety of different alleged illegal acts, from civil rights violations to falsifying documents and lying to federal agents to skimming money from federal programs to misusing deputies by having them on their on-duty time build a large red barn on Underwood’s property.
Underwood, Neal and Sprouse declined to testify, relying on their attorneys to argue that the government didn’t have the evidence to convict them “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Each of the three participated in various alleged acts in conspiracy, according to evidence presented to the jury since April 12, when the case began.
Following Schuman, Stanley Myers, one of Underwood’s defense attorneys, took center stage in the courtroom, castigating prosecutor Schuman and her fellow prosecutor William Miller for trying to put a beloved hard-working sheriff in prison.
Underwood created a family-type environment in his office and was regarded as “an uncle,” Myers said, his voice trembling and appearing near tears.
“There may be people in Chester County who deserve to be in handcuffs, but Alex Underwood ain’t one of them,” said Myers, begging the jury not to “rush to judgment.”
The various charges in the case carry penalties that range from one to five to 20 years in prison. If they are found guilty, any sentencing will be delayed at least several months.
Myers also reminded the jury several times that prosecutors Schuman and Miller aren’t South Carolinians at all, but rather “folks from the Department of Justice (who came) all the way from Washington, D.C., to prosecute this case.” (The prosecutors are part of a special Justice anti-corruption unit. They are here because the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina had a conflict in the case.)
Myers saved his strongest venom forFBI lead case agent Rodney Naramore, whom Myers pointed at and said “doesn’t even have the guts” to get on the witness stand and tell the jury what he knows. Myers didn’t mention that it is up to prosecutors to decide who to put on the witness stand; at least one other FBI agent, Julie Yelk, testified.
Myers also said the government had failed to prove its case, saying several times, “You don’t have wiretaps. You don’t have confidential informants. You don’t have text messages. You don’t have emails” — all various kinds of proof prosecutors use in putting up evidence.
While prosecutor Schuman’s argument lacked wiretaps, informants, texts or emails, she served up various kinds of other evidence as she led the jury through the complex strands of the case, often pausing to display various illustrative items: photographs of various scenes mentioned in testimony, flow charts she described as showing the path of taxpayer money on an illegal journey to deputies’ pockets and a time-diagram.
Among Schuman’s points:
▪ The use of deputies to help Underwood put up a large barn on his property, equipped with a “Man Cave,” speakers, a sound stage and a bar, was a kind of theft of government property because Underwood paid the deputies as if they had actually been working and the deputies clocked in a day at Underwood’s barn as a day working an actual deputy’s shift. All this was for Underwood’s personal benefit, Schuman said.
“If they hadn’t been there, they would have been out serving the public,” she said.
▪ Underwood’s administrative assistant, Hope Bradley, had testified that she had “whited out” a travel voucher to hide the fact that Underwood and Sprouse were taking their wives on first class air fare to a National Sheriffs’ Association convention in Reno, Nevada. Then Sprouse and Underwood used taxpayer funds, in violation of county rules, to pay for their wives’ travel, Schuman reminded the jury.
“Rules about government funds apply to everyone,” she said. “The sheriff isn’t above the rules.”
When, two years after the trip, Underwood and Sprouse were queried by a reporter about using government funds for the Nevada trip, they quickly reimbursed the county some $2,700 and told the reporter that no government funds had been used.
“This wasn’t some oversight — this was a cover-up,” she told the jury.
One of Underwood’s and the deputies’ gravest offenses was a series of acts comprising what Schuman termed an unlawful arrest of Kevin Simpson, a young man who had been livestreaming on Facebook Live events unfolding in front of his house on S.C. 9 near the Chester-Lancaster line, Schuman said.
Simpson was standing well within his property line in front of his house on S.C. 9 when Underwood chased him back onto his property and stopped him from filming, Schuman said. At no time had Schuman interfered with law enforcement and was always well back from the action, said Schuman, citing Simpson’s 27-minute video — which was played to the jury — as evidence.
Simpson was just being a community journalist telling people what was going on in an unfolding series of events involving a horrific car crash, an elderly woman with an amputated foot, a manhunt and an emergency medical evacuation helicopter.
Although Schuman acknowledged that Simpson talked back to Underwood, that wasn’t grounds for what happened to Simpson, including being thrown in jail for three days on a disorderly conduct charge that was later dismissed.
Schuman also cited Fort Lawn volunteer fire chief Allen Culp, who was the whole time standing in front of Simpson’s house and backed up Simpson’s account in testimony earlier in the trial.
After Underwood and Neal subdued Simpson and arrested him for disorderly conduct, Neal was escorting Simpson to a waiting patrol car when, without warning, the deputy shoved Simpson so hard his feet flew up in the air and one of Simpson’s shoes flew off and he hit the ground “like a sack of taters,” Schuman told the jury, quoting Culp’s witness testimony. At the time Simpson was handcuffed, with his hands behind his back, and not being provocative, Schuman said.
Andrew Johnston, Neal’s attorney, disputed Schuman’s version of events, saying evidence was clear that Simpson just stumbled and fell back.
“This was not excessive force; it was not even force — the guy fell down,” Johnston told the jury.
Simpson told the jury that Underwood had come on to Simpson’s property not to try to seize his cell phone but to try to protect Simpson and his five-year-old nephew because there was a fugitive on the loose in the area.
Michael Laubshire, lawyer for Sprouse, Underwood’s number two deputy, said in closing arguments Sprouse altered no records, did not lie to the FBI and engaged in no conspiracy with Underwood and Neal.
More, Sprouse did not try to mislead the FBI or anyone else about the party barn, the travel to Reno, or about the arrest of Simpson. Sprouse always planned to reimburse Chester County for his wife’s travel, Laubshire said, but just forgot until reminded.
“If this was a cover-up, it’s the worst I have ever seen,” Laubshire told the jury. “The government’s case is a show, a parade, theater, where the government is trying to say these are bad guys.”
But in a final closing argument, federal prosecutor Miller said the defense lawyers were only trying to distract the jurors from a scheme by the defendants to skim money, alter reports, use deputy labor for Underwood’s barn, and lie at every chance to avoid detection.
The defense also tried to distract the jury by saying the amount of money at stake was small potatoes, when the defendants were entrusted with the public’s confidence that they would be above the law.
“They were law enforcement officers, they had guns and the ability to arrest people,” Miller said. “They had badges. They broke the public’s trust.”
Miller ended the closing by pointing jurors back to the video of Kevin Simpson with Underwood, that ended with what Miller said was Underwood falsely arresting Simpson then directing a conspiracy to cover it up. Neal knocked Simpson to the ground with excessive force and Sprouse was part of the follow up scheme involving all three where no report was done for two months, Miller said.
“Underwood resorted to ego power,” Miller said. “He escalated the situation and arrested Simpson...The video shows the violation of civil rights.”
Miller said the case came down simply to the three law enforcers who bullies employees, scammed the public, then tried to cover up the whole scam when caught.
“They lied to get what they wanted, and when they got caught, they lied to cover it up,” Miller said.
Both Miller and Schuman, the other prosecutor, said the defense tactic was to distract the jury from the reality that police used their position of power, authority, and access to money to travel, make extra cash, and falsely arrest a person who had the audacity to disagree with them.
Schuman told the jury to be wary of defense arguments. “Don’t be fooled,” she said.
Federal Judge Michelle Childs is presiding.