COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A judge sentenced an Orangeburg man to 20 years in prison Wednesday for conspiring to kill a South Carolina corrections officer in a hit ordered by an inmate with a cellphone.
The sentence - handed down by U.S. District Judge Joseph Anderson, who called the crime “particularly heinous” - was the maximum allowed under federal guidelines for Sean Echols, 31. The federal time will begin after Echols finishes the 25 years he is serving on unrelated state charges.
Echols pleaded guilty in April to conspiracy to arrange a murder-for-hire. Federal authorities have said he participated in a scheme to kill Capt. Robert Johnson, a 15-year Corrections Department veteran who oversaw efforts to keep contraband, including cellphones, out of Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville.
In March 2010, Johnson, now 61, was shot six times outside his Sumter home. He survived and has endured more than a dozen surgeries, ultimately retiring from the department. Echols has said he participated in the plot but did not shoot Johnson himself.
Authorities have said he was the first corrections officer in the country harmed by a hit ordered from an inmate’s illegal cellphone, and Johnson has become an advocate for pushing authorities to allow prisons to use jamming technology - prohibited under federal law - to render useless any cellphones inmates may acquire illegally in prisons. Corrections officials are pursuing alternative ways to block inmates’ cell signals from being able to make calls.
Echols has said he did not shoot Johnson, only helped plan the crime. Federal prosecutors say he hasn’t been very helpful in their investigation, but in court Wednesday, Echols pleaded with the judge to give him another chance to help in exchange for consideration on his sentence.
Echols also addressed Johnson directly, apologizing for his involvement in the shooting.
“It eats at me every day,” Echols said.
Johnson, who told Echols he forgave him, told the court he had originally told prosecutors he would agree to a five-year sentence if Echols had named all the other people involved in the shooting. But, because Echols didn’t do that, Johnson asked for the maximum penalty.
“You’ve shown your predatory nature,” Johnson told him. “I do not seek revenge, but I do seek justice.”
In handing down his sentence, Anderson said 20 years was appropriate because Johnson had been retaliated against because of his profession.
“This was a particularly heinous crime involving a law enforcement officer who was doing his job and was doing it exceedingly well,” Anderson said. “This is a defendant who needs to be incarcerated for as long as the law will allow.”
After the hearing was over, Echols - restrained in handcuffs and leg chains - began yelling and was physically removed from the courtroom. Addressing reporters outside the courthouse, Johnson said he was satisfied with the sentence and felt honored by the dozens of corrections officials who showed up to support him, including Director Bryan Stirling and two former directors.
“It gave me comfort to know they’re there for me,” said Johnson, adding that he now has a concealed weapons permit and practices shooting in case he needs to defend himself in the future. “If it happens again, it will be different.”