Former Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long’s guilty pleas Monday would, if accepted, land him in prison for at least 10 years — unless Mr. Long’s attorney can win his argument for a lesser punishment at his client’s Aug. 18 sentencing hearing.
“Billy Long went for it, and he has to pay the price,” attorney Jerry Summers said of the federal undercover investigation in which agents caught Mr. Long extorting money from business owners and making plans to help traffic drugs.
Staff Photo by John Rawlston-- Former Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long is escorted by a federal marshal Monday into the back entrance of the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building for an arraignment hearing.
Mr. Summers stood by the 56-year-old Mr. Long in federal court as he offered U.S. District Judge Harry “Sandy” Mattice guilty pleas on 27 of the 28 extortion, money laundering, gun and drug charges against him.
Judge Mattice said he will not decide whether to approve the plea agreement until after he receives a pre-sentencing report on Mr. Long from the federal probation office. But he told Mr. Long, who stood solemnly in a red prison jumpsuit and shackles, that acceptance of the agreement is “perhaps likely.”
The specific language of Mr. Long’s plea agreement will not be made public. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble said it is not uncommon for plea agreements — no matter who the defendants are — to be sealed.
Mr. Long’s family, including his wife Joy, scrunched together in the spectators’ gallery, lips pursed. Mrs. Long wiped tears from her eye as her husband told the judge he understood that he would not get parole in the federal system, but he maintained a stoic demeanor.
Mr. Summers said there are cases to support a lesser term, and there’s cases against it.
“It’s a factual argument,” he said.
But Mr. Summers also had told the court that there were “mitigating factors” that should be considered in calculating Mr. Long’s sentence, including the fact that no drugs actually were distributed in the government’s sting and no violence took place.
“There was actually no crime committed because the government created it,” Mr. Summers argued outside the court, conceding that such “reverse stings” are acceptable if the government believes illegal activity is taking place.
Though the defense has raised public issue with the credibility of the government’s confidential witness in the case, local funeral home operator the Rev. Eugene Overstreet, Mr. Summers said he and his client have concluded that the government’s investigation was fair.
During the hearing, Judge Mattice told Mr. Summers that the issues he was raising “do not detract in any way from the elements of the crimes,” and that those arguments should be left for the sentencing hearing.
Mr. Long was arrested in February after a lengthy sting during which evidence showed he had taken more than $23,000 in illegal payoffs from convenience store shake-downs and alleged drug trafficking proceeds. He also was recorded giving a gun to someone he knew was a convicted felon and taking part in a cocaine transaction.
He had taken office as sheriff in September 2006. The illegal activity, to which he initially had pleaded not guilty, began in March 2007 and continued up until his arrest, authorities said. He resigned Feb. 6.
The extortion and money laundering charges carry sentences of up to 20 years each plus a $250,000 fine, while the gun charge carries a maximum of 10 years plus a $250,000 fine. But the drug charge — possessing cocaine with intent to distribute — carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum of life in prison, along with a fine of up to $4 million.
Mr. Humble said in an interview after Monday’s hearing that if the judge accepts the plea agreement, which is likely, Mr. Long will have to serve at least the mandatory minimum and possibly more.
“We believe this was a fair resolution to the case, and in the best interest of the parties involved, or we wouldn’t have agreed to it,” Mr. Humble said.
But Mr. Summers said that because prosecutors agreed to drop the 28th charge against his client — possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug crime — Mr. Long now will be able to take advantage of a loophole in sentencing law that would allow Judge Mattice to sentence him to less than the mandatory minimum.
He said this was a major factor in his client’s decision to enter into an agreement rather than go to trial, but he declined to reveal the exact punishment he plans to request.
The next step for Mr. Long and his family is to help the federal probation office collect the necessary information for a pre-sentencing report to present to Judge Mattice. That report must be completed at least three weeks before Mr. Long’s sentencing hearing, according to Mr. Humble.
Family members and supporters at the hearing declined further comment, shielding each other from a flock of reporters as they filed out of the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building.