The Associated Press
A federal appeals court panel on Friday upheld the conviction of Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, one of Mississippi’s most prominent attorneys before going to prison on judicial corruption charges.
Scruggs has been free on $2 million bond pending the appeal and it’s not clear if the ruling means he will have to go back to prison right now because he could ask the full 5th Circuit to consider his appeal or petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
Scruggs, an architect of the multibillion dollar tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s, pleaded guilty in 2009 to improperly influencing then Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter in a civil lawsuit.
Prosecutors say Scruggs told DeLaughter that he would recommend the judge to Scruggs’ brother-in-law, then Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, for an appointment to the federal bench. Lott, who has since retired and was not charged with wrongdoing, said he made a courtesy call to DeLaughter, but recommended someone else for the job.
DeLaughter made a name for himself as a prosecutor in 1994 when he helped convict Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
Scruggs was serving five years for conspiring to bribe another judge when he pleaded guilty to honest services fraud in the DeLaughter case. He was sentenced to seven years in the DeLaughter case with the sentences to run concurrently, meaning the plea deal added two years to his prison term.
But the U.S. Supreme Court limited the scope of honest services laws in June 2010, and Scruggs appealed based on the argument that he was innocent of a crime to which he pleaded guilty.
Scruggs said he offered DeLaughter nothing of value and only endorsed his candidacy for a judgeship.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans was not persuaded.
“Scruggs’s recommendation to his senator brother-in-law was a thing of value, at least to DeLaughter. There is abundant testimony regarding the ‘deal’ or ‘arrangement’ that they reached shortly thereafter, and of DeLaughter’s official actions in exchange for the bribe,” the panel wrote.
Scruggs’ attorneys did not immediately respond to messages Friday.
The lawsuit before DeLaughter was a dispute between Scruggs and another lawyer over legal fees.
The appeals court panel said Scruggs and DeLaughter entered a corrupt agreement to help steer the case in Scruggs’ favor.
“DeLaughter kept his end of the bargain: When Scruggs badly needed a trial continuance, DeLaughter entered, verbatim, a scheduling order prepared by one of Scruggs’s attorneys, despite having disclaimed input from either party. DeLaughter also reviewed yet-to-be-filed motions for Scruggs, advising how he would rule and which arguments needed work,” the panel wrote in a 16-page ruling.
DeLaughter pleaded guilty convicted in 2009 for lying to the FBI about ex parte communications, or discussions about cases outside of court, and was sentenced to 18 months. He has been released from prison.
Scruggs efforts in the tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s were portrayed in the 1999 film “The Insider” starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.
The Evers’ case was the basis for the 1996 movie “Ghosts of Mississippi,” with Alec Baldwin playing DeLaughter. DeLaughter also wrote a book about the prosecution, “Never Too Late: A Prosecutor’s Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case.”