EL DORADO A man present at the fatal shooting of Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels was acquitted of first-degree felony murder but convicted of conspiracy to make methamphetamine.
On Wednesday, the Butler County jury also acquitted Matt Denny, 23, of manufacturing methamphetamine.
The sheriff was killed Jan. 17, while trying to serve a search warrant at a home in the Hilltop area of Greenwood County. Federal prosecutors have charged Scott Cheever, 23, in his death, saying Cheever shot Samuels to protect a meth lab.
Cheever could get the death penalty if convicted.
Denny testified that he witnessed the shooting but also said he didn't know Cheever had planned to make meth when the two went to the home. Prosecutors had said Denny was a lookout.
State law allows felony murder charges to be filed against accomplices in dangerous crimes that result in death. However, merely being present when a crime is committed does not qualify as complicity.
"This case was unique," Denny's attorney, Paul McCausland, said after the verdict. "The path that led to Sheriff Samuels going to serve warrants on Scott Cheever was very different than the path that led Matt Denny to a meth lab in Greenwood County."
District Judge Mike Ward also noted during the trial that the Legislature likely wouldn't have intended the law to apply in Denny's case.
"This is such a tragic case," McCausland said. "Sheriff Samuels was a good man. My client feels bad about even how he got in the position of being there."
The conspiracy conviction carries a prison sentence of 11 1/2 to 17 years.
Two other defendants, Belinda Cooper and Billy Nowell, have pleaded guilty to federal drug and weapons charges and are awaiting sentencing. Two more, Darrell Cooper and Rhonda O'Brien, are awaiting trial on federal drug and weapons charges.