Federal jury picked in SC trial of former Chester sheriff Underwood, 2 top deputies

Federal jury picked in SC trial of former Chester sheriff Underwood, 2 top deputies
A jury has been picked in the federal criminal trial of former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood and two former top deputies, court records show. (WBTV file photo)

CHESTER COUNTY, S.C. (Rock Hill Herald) - A jury has been picked in the federal criminal trial of former Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood and two former top deputies, court records show.

Wednesday in federal court in Columbia, prosecutors and defense lawyers chose a jury of 12 people, plus eight alternates, in the trial of Underwood, former Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse, and former Lt. Johnny Neal, court records show.

The federal documents do not identify the gender, race, or residences of the jurors. All the jurors are from South Carolina, records show.

The jurors were seated but not sworn, according to an order by Federal Judge Michelle Childs. The trial is set to begin April 12, according to documents signed by Childs. All three defendants will be tried in the single court proceeding, court records show.

All three have pleaded not guilty after a federal grand jury indicted them in May 2019 and again in November 2019. Each remains free on a personal recognizance bond, records show.

Underwood’s lawyer, Stanley Myers, said after Underwood was indicted that he wanted a trial to show his innocence because federal prosecutors started an “assault on law enforcement.”

Underwood, first elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2016, was suspended from office by S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster the same day Underwood was charged in May 2019. He then ran for re-election in November 2020 but was defeated by Max Dorsey.

THE CHARGES

Underwood, Sprouse and Neal face several federal indictments, according to court records. The charges include: conspiracy to defraud the government; depriving civil rights; tampering with a witness or victim; destruction, altering or falsifying records in a federal investigation; conversion of property for personal use; and wire fraud.

Underwood faces 17 indictments, Sprouse faces 14 indictments, and Neal faces 12, according to U.S. Department of Justice records.

The federal sentences for those charges range from one year to 20 years per count if convicted, according to federal records.

In court documents, federal prosecutors claim Underwood, Sprouse and Neal violated the civil rights of Chester County resident Kevin Simpson. He and his mother were arrested after Simpson videotaped and broadcast an ongoing Chester County manhunt near his home in 2018.

Prosecutors say records were altered by Underwood and the others. South Carolina prosecutors later dropped charges against Simpson and his mother. Simpson and his mother then filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office.

Then later in 2019, a federal grand jury issued more indictments, records show. The charges allege conspiracy, misuse of county money for travel to Nevada, using deputies to work on Underwood’s property, and directing security detail payments for off-duty deputies to avoid paying employment taxes, according to the indictments.

WITNESS LISTS

Federal court records filed by lawyers for Underwood, Neal and Sprouse show the defense could call as many as 96 witnesses.

Those witnesses include dozens of current and former Chester County deputies, SLED agents, and other law enforcement and judicial officials.

One of the potential witnesses is Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh, the former sheriff of Chester County, Pa. Welsh and Underwood assisted a young Pennsylvania boy during a mix-up over a police hunting trip. Their efforts made national news after it was first reported in The Herald.

Prosecutors have 43 people on their witness list, including investigators in the criminal case and current and former law enforcement and judicial officers. Documents filed Tuesday by prosecutors show exhibits expected at trial will include the Facebook Live video taken by Simpson, police reports and financial documents.

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