Byrd pleads guilty to one felony charge; leaves office immediately

Byrd pleads guilty to 1 state charge; leaves office

mbbaker@sunherald.comDecember 12, 2013 

PASCAGOULA -- Mike Byrd's four-term career as sheriff in Jackson County abruptly ended Thursday when he stood before a judge and pleaded guilty to a state felony charge of intimidating a witness in a plea deal with the state.

In exchange for the plea, District Attorney Tony Lawrence dismissed 28 felony charges and two misdemeanor offenses pending against the 64-year-old Hurley resident in state court.

Lawrence recommended a sentence of 1½ years of house arrest, three years of post-release supervision, a $2,000 fine, $5,000 for investigative costs and an immediate order to step down as the county's chief law enforcement officer, which Byrd did Thursday morning in a

letter to the president of the Jackson County Board of Supervisors.

Byrd admitted as part of the plea agreement he attempted to induce deputy Chad Powell to lie to a grand jury and tell them he was struck by concrete fragments during a July 31, 2012, shooting at the office of the Narcotics Task Force of Jackson County that went unreported. Powell had actually been struck in the leg by a bullet.

The state's entire case portrayed Byrd as a sheriff who used his office to retaliate against perceived enemies, order deputies and office staff to raise money for private causes, conceal a shooting at the county drug task force office, pressure witnesses to testify falsely in grand jury cases, demand free lawn mower repair and punish a female deputy who rebuffed his sexual advances.

Byrd entered the plea Thursday before Special Judge William Coleman, who set sentencing for March 11, the same day Byrd is scheduled for sentencing on a federal charge of knowingly engaging in misleading conduct, commonly referred to as witness tampering.

In the federal case, Byrd admitted he twice kicked in the groin a suspect in the theft of a county patrol car after he was handcuffed and "unresisting." In addition, he said he ordered a deputy to delete his patrol car's dashboard camera footage of Byrd assaulting the suspect and later ordered an employee to "wipe" clean his hard drive, even ordering him to drill a hole in it to ensure no one could recover any data from Byrd's office computer.

Lawrence said the state's investigation was a joint effort from the beginning with assistance from the police chiefs in Moss Point, Gautier, Pascagoula and Ocean Springs. He said the probe was launched shortly after he learned in September 2012 of the county task force office shooting, and solicited the help of FBI Safe Streets Task Force head Jerome Lorrain to investigate. He said he and Lorrain assigned FBI agent Joe Nicholson and the DA's chief investigator, Scott McIlrath, to head up the investigation. Lawrence commended the two for performing the investigative task despite suffering tremendous "ridicule" and "pressure."

DA's decision

In addition, Lawrence said it was his decision alone to allow Byrd to plead to one amended charge and dismiss the remaining 30 counts.

"I know there are some out there who feel Sheriff Byrd should be in jail, that he should be punished more than what I agreed to do," he said. "First of all, I would say it was my decision. I made that decision.

"I made it, I thought, in the best interest of the county. The county is ready to move forward. The county needs to move forward. This needs to be behind us. My recommendation is public record. I stand on my recommendation and I think he has been held accountable.

"Someone who has to resign from office in the manner which he did, someone who has to remain under house arrest for six months from the federal system and a year and half depending on what the judge does in the state system and then be on post-release supervision for three years, pay a substantial fine and pay substantial investigative costs, I think has been punished."

Moss Point Police Chief Keith Davis was identified as one of Byrd's targets in the 31-count indictment for bringing to light information about the task force office shooting.

When asked how he felt about Byrd's plea in state court, Davis said: "I think that justice was served today and I agree with Mr. Lawrence and it is time for the county to move forward. It's time for healing to begin. It started when the defendant said, 'I'm guilty to the charges.'" He added, "… You have an obligation as a law enforcement officer to make sure that badge is secure at all times."

'No one is above the law'

Ocean Springs Deputy Chief Mark Dunston testified before the grand jury in Byrd's case, resulting in one of the charges against the former sheriff. Dunston said it was necessary for him to testify.

"It's difficult, obviously, because it is another law enforcement officer that you had had faith in for many years," he said. "But first and foremost, please remember that no one is above the law and if someone breaks the law and you are a witness to that or have some information on that, it is your duty not only to the community and the citizens of our community but to the other professional law enforcement officers to step forward and present that evidence."

Byrd had been indicted on several other charges related to the task force office shooting, including two charges of second-degree hindering prosecution for concealing information about the shooting from the public and the task force board members.

In addition, Byrd had been indicted on a charge of perjury for allegedly lying to a grand jury Nov. 13, 2012, when he told them no one had tried to hide the fact that a shooting occurred at the county task force office.

Byrd's attorney, Joe Sam Owen, pointed out his client pleaded guilty to only one charge and that charge was amended to a charge of intimidating a witness prior to the plea.

Owen said a lot of factors come into play when making a decision to enter a guilty plea, including issues with the defendant's family and the emotional and financial strain on the defendant himself as well the strain on the public.

Byrd did not comment Thursday, but Owen said he plans to encourage Byrd to comment on his decision to enter guilty pleas after he is formally sentenced.

Lawrence added: "I think what happened in court today is an indication that no one can bully the justice system. The system itself and the people who work within it stand for truth and justice, and those who seek to pervert that for their own personal gain will be held accountable by the very system they seek to abuse. It is a sad day for Jackson County, but it is also a day that speaks volumes of the good men and women who carry a badge and stood up against wrongdoing."

Though Lawrence admits the final act of Byrd's tenure will serve as his legacy, he said people do need to remember Byrd did do good things for Jackson County.

"There are a lot of people who committed violent crimes against members of our community that were held accountable because of his actions and the leadership he showed," Lawrence said. "Unfortunately, this is the end result of his career …"

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