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Former Chester County sheriff, top deputies found guilty of conspiracy, other charges in federal corruption trial

Trial begins for former Chester County Sheriff accused of public corruption
Trial begins for former Chester County Sheriff accused of public corruption(Emily Wakeman)
Updated: Apr. 23, 2021 at 5:41 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTV/WIS) - A jury has found a former Chester County sheriff and two former deputies guilty of conspiracy, federal program theft and other charges in a federal corruption trial.

Jury deliberation started Thursday in the federal trial for former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, former Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse and Deputy Johnny Neal.

The charges that Underwood, Sprouse, and Neal faced included using on-duty deputies to do manual labor at Underwood’s home, using county money to take their families on vacations, engaging in a conspiracy to use their positions to intimidate others and falsifying police reports and unjustly arresting two people in 2018.

All together the three faced more than 30 charges total. All three pleaded not guilty to each charge.

The 17-count indictment against Underwood alleged public corruption. Underwood faced indictments for criminal conspiracy, misconduct in office, embezzlement, criminal conspiracy, forgery and use of official position, or office for financial gain.

Underwood was found guilty of seven charges.

Robert Sprouse faced indictments for criminal conspiracy, embezzlement, forgery and misconduct in office. Johnny Neal faced indictments for criminal conspiracy, misconduct in office and use of official position or office for financial gain.

Robert Sprouse was found guilty of four charges and Johnny Neal was found guilty of 13 charges. Sprouse and Neal were found guilty of falsifying records as well.

The three were also found not guilty of a few charges contained in the indictment. The guilty verdicts far outweighed the not-guilty verdicts in terms of serious charges.

The federal charges for all three men range from one year to up to 20 years in prison. Sentencing can take months in federal court cases and no date has been set just yet.

In a 10-day trial, prosecutors and the defendant’s lawyers made their arguments before a 12-person jury, and witnesses also took the stand. The former sheriff and the two former top deputies chose not to testify.

The jury deliberated for a few hours on Thursday and the entire day on Friday.

Closing arguments

Thursday, April 22 was the ninth day of trial and was the day of closing arguments.

During these closing arguments, federal prosecutor Rebecca Schuman argued that Underwood had a laundry list of crimes he’s committed. Prosecution claimed Underwood, Sprouse and Neal lied a lot to everyone and used force to make people do what they want.

The prosecution also argued that Underwood apparently took money from his deputies and paid them to do his party barn which the prosecution says was all for Underwood’s benefit.

The prosecution reminded the jury about an incident involving an assistant whiting out and then putting two random deputies down for the Reno trip when Underwood and Sprouse’s wives went. The prosecution also says Kevin Simpson, one of Underwood’s apparent enemies, did not interfere with any investigation when recording and also the papers about the incident took a long time to file.

The closing arguments from the prosecution also included claims that all three men abused their power and the trust of the people in Chester County. Prosecutors asked jury to “not to be fooled by the defense and their tactics to distract them from the facts.”

In a rebuttal, the defense reprimanded the prosecution for trying to make it seem like a “beloved” sheriff was doing wrong and basically “kicking dirt” on his name.

The defense called Underwood a family man who made it like a family at the office. The defense also argued that the sheriff did not deserve to be put in prison.

Stanley Myers, one of Underwood’s defense attorneys, seemed to be almost in tears when he was talking about all the hard work the sheriff did. Myers says the FBI agents should have testified (one did, another did not).

Myers claims there was no evidence and the “prosecutors did not prove its case.”

Opening arguments

The prosecution’s opening allegations include that Underwood directed his on-duty deputies to do manual labor on his property, including the repair of a barn.

Jonny Neal’s attorney said during opening statements that the party barn was a place where there could be get-togethers and official sheriff department parties. The annual Christmas party took place at Underwood’s home each year.

The first three witnesses who took the stand in the trial all worked under former Sheriff Underwood during his time at the department. All three witnesses testified to performing manual labor on Underwood’s property while on the clock. Two of the men also laid out the way they were asked to do surveillance work on community members outside of their duties.

The defense made the argument that when putting some of the situations into context, no crimes have been committed. The defense also pointed out that Underwood had received death threats during his time as sheriff.

Copyright 2021 WBTV. All rights reserved. WIS contributed to this story.