CANTON — A man accused of videotaping the ill wife of a U.S. senator during a heated election campaign has pleaded guilty to conspiracy.
Clayton Kelly of Pearl, Mississippi entered the plea Monday. He faces up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Sentencing was set for June 15.
“We are pleased that Clayton Kelly did accept responsibility for his actions,” District Attorney Michael Guest said outside the courthouse.
Prosecutors are dropping two other felony charges against Kelly. Those two, combined, would have carried up to 50 years In prison. Guest said he never thought Kelly’s actions were worth more than 50 years of being locked up.
Kelly was accused of shooting a brief cellphone video of the wife of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran while she was bedridden with dementia in a nursing home.
Images of Rose Cochran appeared online briefly during the 2014 election, during a tough Republican primary that Cochran eventually won over a tea party-backed state senator, Chris McDaniel. Cochran is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Prosecutors said an investigation showed no direct link between the McDaniel campaign and the video of Rose Cochran, although Kelly and the others who participated in the conspiracy had openly supported McDaniel.
Investigators say Kelly was one of several people who conspired to produce the video suggesting the senator was having an affair. The Cochran campaign said he was not involved in an improper relationship.
Kelly, 29, was charged with conspiracy, attempted burglary and burglary. He pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit burglary of a dwelling. By entering a plea, Kelly avoids a jury trial that was scheduled for this week.
During pre-trial motions earlier Monday, Circuit Judge William Chapman III ruled that Kelly could not use a First Amendment defense. Kelly had argued that the right of free speech protected his actions.
Before entering his plea, Kelly, whose blog was called Constitutional Clayton, told reporters outside the Madison County Courthouse that he thought the case was motivated by politics.
“I think a lot of this is political. I think my constitutional rights should be respected,” he said.
Kelly has been free on bond since shortly after his arrest last year. He was taken into custody after he pleaded guilty and will remain jailed until his sentencing.
Guest said before prosecutors offered Kelly a plea deal, they spoke with a representative of Cochran and to the two grown children of the senator and Rose Cochran. Guest said they all were in agreement with accepting the deal.
Rose Cochran died in December after living in a nursing home for 13 years. Last month, Thad Cochran married a long-time aide.
Charges against three other defendants in the case have been resolved.
Richard Sager, a Laurel teacher and coach, who had been charged with conspiracy and tampering with evidence, entered a pretrial diversion program. His case won’t be prosecuted if he successfully completes the program.
John Mary of Hattiesburg pleaded guilty in August to conspiracy and agreed to cooperate with investigators. Mary received no jail time and could have the conviction wiped from his record if he completes probation.
Ridgeland Attorney Mark Mayfield, who was charged with conspiracy, killed himself in June 2014.
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