Former Chester Co. Sheriff Underwood sentenced

Alex Underwood, left, leaves the courthouse after sentencing on Monday.

COLUMBIA – Alex Underwood has been sentenced to 46 months in prison.

Underwood was found guilty on seven federal counts last year, but former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood conceded little at his sentencing on Monday.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Underwood said.

The former sheriff, removed from office by order of Gov. Henry McMaster in 2019 following his indictment, maintained that he was the victim of a racist witch hunt and overzealous government attorneys even as he was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison, three years of probation and ordered to pay nearly $30,000 in restitution. His sentencing took place at the Matthew Perry Federal Courthouse in Columbia in front of Judge Michelle Childs.

William Miller, one of the lawyers that prosecuted Underwood in 2021, argued in favor of a stiff penalty on the high end of the recommended sentencing guideline of 46-57 months. A lenient sentence would lead the public to “question the validity” of the legal system and erode “trust of law enforcement,” he said.

Underwood was originally elected as a petition candidate in 2012 (after he was one of hundreds of challengers statewide removed from the ballot over confusion regarding new filing requirements) and was overwhelmingly reelected in 2016.

His eventual ouster was set into motion in November of 2018 on a dark, rural roadside on the eastern end of the county. There was a head-on collision with injury and one driver fled on foot. Nearby resident Kevin Simpson walked out into his yard and began livestreaming the scene via Facebook.

Underwood approached him after a few minutes, told him there was a manhunt ongoing and to go to his porch. Simpson backed up, but eventually ventured back into his yard. The two had a second encounter when Underwood again told Simpson a manhunt was ongoing and again ordered him to go to his porch.

Simspon complied with the command, but then told Underwood to “go manhunt” and to “do his job.” Underwood could be seen stopping in Simpson’s front yard as he walked back towards the road. He turned around, came onto Simpson’s porch, confronted him and asked him if he had anything to say.

When Simpson repeated, “go manhunt,” Underwood informed him he was under arrest. At that point the camera shook wildly.

Simpson was arrested for pubic disorderly conduct (though he never left his own yard) and resisting arrest. He spent three nights in jail, though records from that period demonstrated that others arrested for similar offenses bonded out in a day or less.

Simpson’s mother was arrested later that night. Their charges were eventually dropped by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and the two later settled a civil trial out of court.

Once Underwood was arrested on charges related to violating the civil rights of Simpson (and a related cover-up) more charges were forthcoming.

He was accused of using on-duty sheriff’s office deputies to build a party barn and perform other improvements on his property. There were additional allegations of using his department to track and spy on his political enemies, of skimming money from off-duty deputies working ECHO DUI checkpoints funded by a federal grant administered locally by the Hazel Pittman Center, and of taking his wife on a trip to Reno in violation of county policy (while claiming on paperwork he was going with a deputy).

Miller said Monday that Underwood “ripped Kevin Simpson off his porch and incarcerated him without just cause” and “ripped off a charity and stole from his subordinates.”

Underwood had two attorneys (Stanley Myers and Jay Moore) speak on his behalf, along with half-a-dozen character witnesses. Myers said at the outset of his comments that Underwood was a leader and that “leaders are not always liked.” He maintained that his client had “done nothing improper.”

On the night of the manhunt, Myers said Simpson was in the way while a search was ongoing for a potentially dangerous individual. In a separate statement, Moore actually called Simpson “a barking Chihuahua” that kept “pushing and pushing and pushing.”

Moore said if Underwood violated Simpson’s civil rights, it was unintentional and a minor infringement. He said it didn’t compare to “firebombing a church in Alabama” or other offenses that made civil rights legislation necessary to begin with. Everything Underwood did that night, he did to protect the public, Moore said.

Myers said race played a part in the case. He made reference to “the breakfast club,” a group of community leaders that meets for breakfast regularly at a local restaurant. Myers flatly called the group “racist,” said they were comprised solely of white men (“with no blacks and no women”) and they did not accept Underwood into their midst. He painted them as a powerful cabal that targeted Underwood because he is black and because he was “going against the powers that be.”

Myers repeated the argument he made last year regarding Underwood having deputies work on the barn on his property. He said it was a display of leadership, that it was for the good of the community and that none of the deputies doing the work complained.

Moore said the civil rights charges against Underwood were “like trying to squeeze Jello” and began to fall apart, so the government kept adding more and more charges. Myers said the evidence against Underwood was weak but that the “jury bought the argument that [Underwood was] the captain of the ship,” so he was must have been culpable somehow.

Many other sheriffs have been arrested on charges similar to Underwood’s and all received sentences that ranged from one year and one day in jail to probation. All of those former sheriffs had something in common, he said, that “they didn’t look like” Underwood.

Several people spoke on behalf of Underwood. Nettie Archie, who introduced herself as a community activist, said “the powers that be tried to destroy” Underwood, saying Chester County Council would not cooperate with him or give him what he needed to run his department.

Two ministers spoke of Underwood’s character and love of community. Two former law enforcement cohorts said Underwood was well-respected, a good cop and that they could not imagine him having done the things he was accused of.

Underwood’s wife Angel also spoke. She called the picture painted of her husband by prosecutors “a fictional character.” She, referenced the time Underwood was shot in the line of duty while working with SLED. A bullet-proof vest likely saved his life in that instance. He shot and killed the man, acting in the best interest and protection of the community, she said. She said not many people would take a bullet for someone they loved, much less a stranger.

She also mentioned that the couple’s dog was poisoned and killed shortly after Underwood’s election while the two marched in an MLK parade.

“That sent a clear message that he was not wanted,” she said.

Her husband makes mistakes like anyone, she allowed, but always acted with good intentions and has always been “a great human being.” She is a Chester County magistrate currently suspended from the bench for improperly using her judicial email account to issue instructions to employees in the Chester County Sheriff’s Office while her husband served as sheriff and previously suspended for conflicts related to handling cases brought by her husband’s former office. Myers seemed to make reference to that in saying “they” had come after her as they had her husband.

Underwood did not testify in his trial, but did speak in his own behalf Monday. He said when he first started in law enforcement, he could not arrest a white person and had memories of the Ku Klux Klan holding a rally on a local football field. He saw problems in law enforcement for people of color and said he tried to change things from the inside. His voice cracked and he wept briefly as he recalled the infamous 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. Using that as a backdrop, he said, “I’d never violate anyone’s civil rights.”

He said on the night of the manhunt, he had reason to believe the man on the loose was armed and dangerous. He’d had a past experience (with SLED) when a man on the run murdered an innocent person in a barn. He didn’t want that to happen to anyone on the night of the wreck and subsequent manhunt, he said.

He said as sheriff, he oversaw a decrease in crime and an uptick in arrests and convictions. He started programs to help youth and seniors and tried to flush out corruption himself, he said.

“I apologize to you, to him (Miller) and the citizens but the things they talk about me aren’t true. I never meant to do anybody any harm, never retaliated against anybody, never forced anyone to do anything,” Underwood said.

Myers concluded there was “no reason” Underwood should be behind bars. He compared him to Andy Griffith and said to sentence him to prison would not represent justice, it would represent a fulfillment of the wishes of “the racist breakfast club.”

Miller said Underwood’s team was essentially trying to re-litigate the trial and was offering arguments already rejected by a jury. He said it was insulting to compare Simpson to a dog or to insinuate he “got what was coming to him.” The government’s case was built by going where the evidence led, “no matter who didn’t like it,” he said.

While he said Underwood’s past service was admirable, he also said that service earned him a position of trust, which he abused. He said all of the theories offered by the defense related to “the breakfast club” were based on nothing and that no evidence had yet been produced to back Myers’ narrative.

Before rendering the sentence, Judge Childs said that the comparison Myers brought up about past sheriffs really wasn’t valid, because many of them pled guilty and accepted plea deals to lesser charges, while Underwood did not. Many of them faced a single charge, not the seven as Underwood faced, which range from wire fraud to federal program theft and violation of civil rights.

After sentencing him to 46 months in federal prison (followed by three years probation) and ordering him to pay nearly $30,000 in restitution, Childs allowed him the opportunity to voluntarily report to prison. Underwood will do so by September 15.

Upon release from prison, he will have to pay $500 a month toward restitution, though she said the sum could be altered based on his ability to pay.

His sentence will run concurrently with any time he should receive on pending state charges. Underwood asked that he not be sent to prison in South Carolina for safety reasons and Childs said she would attempt to accommodate that request. Underwood has 14 days to appeal his sentence.

This story was published in The Chester News and Reporter: Underwood sentenced to 46 months in prison.

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