MOBILE, AL (WLOX) - Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd is now a confessed federal felon. Byrd pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon in Mobile federal court to one count of witness tampering involving the abuse of a restrained and handcuffed prisoner, and a subsequent cover-up.
Mobile was the venue for the plea hearing because the suspect led officers on a high speed chase that began in Mississippi and ended in Alabama.
The hearing lasted only 15 minutes, as Judge William Steele questioned Byrd about his plea, and his understanding of its legal ramifications. The sheriff said "yes sir" to every question. The judge then accepted the plea, and released Byrd on his own recognizance until his sentencing in March.
Federal prosecutors were satisfied.
"The United States U.S. Attorney's office is very pleased. These are very important cases," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Bordenkircher. "Abuse of power needs to be taken seriously and it will be taken seriously in the Southern District of Alabama. And for people to have faith in their government, they need to know that everyone is treated the same."
One of the people in attendance Tuesday was longtime Pascagoula police officer Jeff Barnes, who has run against the popular sheriff twice in the past and lost. He's also been critical of Sheriff Byrd.
Now, he talked about what this case has done for the image of the department.
"The image has probably been tarnished. I won't say it's been damaged beyond repair," Barnes said. "We'll have a special election to elect a new sheriff, at which time I believe the new sheriff will take the reigns of the sheriff's department and bring it out from under the little cloud it's been under."
Under state law, Byrd cannot serve as sheriff with a felony conviction. But will he resign or be removed from office? His attorney, Joe Sam Owen addressed that.
"I'm going to wait and probably in the morning talk with Greg Bordenkircher, he was the assistant U.S. attorney handling the proceeding today," Owen explained. "I'm going to probably call Greg and get his input and see what he thinks is the appropriate thing from the government standpoint. And then I will meet with Mike in the morning and hopefully by tomorrow afternoon, maybe you guys will know something."
According to Barnes, something else needs to be done - restoring confidence in the sheriff's department.
"Unfortunately, it's a sad day for our county, our citizens to see this happen. But then again, it demonstrates that no one, absolutely no one is above the law."
Tuesday's proceedings only involved the federal case against Byrd. He'll be sentenced on March 11th. Prosecutors have recommended a sentence of six months of house arrest, followed by six months of probation.
Byrd still faces a 31 count indictment on state charges, 29 of which are felonies, including perjury, fraud, and embezzlement. A status hearing on that case is set for Thursday in Jackson County Circuit Court. But since no motions have been filed by either the defense or the prosecution, that hearing may be delayed.