Backstrom again wants judicial bribery case severed from Scruggs

Published 7:32 pm Friday, March 14, 2008

Sidney Backstrom is asking again to be tried separately from Zach and Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, his two co-defendants in a high-profile federal bribery trail set to begin later this month.

All three men are accused of conspiring to bribe a Lafayette County Circuit Court judge for a favorable ruling in a dispute over $26.5 million in legal fees from a mass settlement of Hurricane Katrina cases.

The trial is scheduled for March 31. A hearing on outstanding motions in the case is scheduled for Friday. The defendants have pleaded not guilty.

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Backstrom, an attorney with the Scruggs Law Firm in Oxford, is trying for the second time to persuade a federal judge to give him a separate trial. The first motion was denied. Zach Scruggs has also asked to be tried separately.

Backstrom’s latest motion, filed Wednesday, says “that two recent rulings by this Court significantly increase the unfair prejudice that Mr. Backstrom will suffer as a result of being tried with Richard Scruggs and Zach Scruggs.”

The prosecution, in a response filed Thursday, said there’s nothing in Backstrom’s latest motion that effectively argues that he won’t get a fair trial.

“The renewed motion offers no basis upon which this court should change its previous ruling,” the government said. “The renewed motion for severance should be denied.”

The court recently decided to keep the identities of the jurors anonymous, which is rare but not unheard of in the judicial system, due to news coverage in the case. Prosecutors will also be allowed to present evidence that Richard Scruggs allegedly tried to bribe a different judge in a separate case.

In the separate case, prosecutors claim Richard Scruggs tried to influence Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter in a dispute over legal fees from asbestos litigation. Richard Scruggs, the brother-in-law of former Sen. Trent Lott, allegedly offered to help DeLaughter get appointed to the federal bench in exchange for a favorable ruling. Neither Scruggs nor DeLaughter has been charged in that case.

Introducing the accusation “is particularly unfair to Mr. Backstrom, who was not a member or employee of any of the law firms involved…,” Backstrom’s motion argues.

Backstrom also claims that having an anonymous jury will cause him to be “denied his right to a public and open trial by a known jury of his peers.”

Judges sometimes allow anonymous juries if widespread news coverage or other considerations create the concern that jurors could be harassed or intimidated. Backstom’s motion says there’s no need for an anonymous jury in his case.

“It is Richard Scruggs prominence that lead to the extraordinary, sensational attention to the case,” the motion says. “On the other hand, none of the publicity focuses on Mr. Backstrom.”

A separate motion filed Wednesday by Richard Scruggs’ attorney, John Keker, argues that the court made a mistake in allowing the anonymous jury. Keker’s motion also urges the court to reconsider moving the case out of Mississippi.

Backstom’s motion also places the blame for payments being made to the judge in the Katrina fee case, on the judge himself.

Backstrom and the Scruggses were indicted in November along with New Albany attorney Timothy Balducci and former State Auditor Steve Patterson. Patterson and Balducci have pleaded guilty. Balducci admitted to the FBI that he paid Judge Henry Lackey $40,000 in cash and says he did so at the behest of the Scruggses and Backstrom. However, Backstom and the Scruggses say Balducci acted on his own.

Lackey has been praised by federal investigators for contacting the FBI when Balducci made a “bribe overture.” The agents apparently set a trap for Balducci with the judge’s help and taped conversations between the two when Lackey asked for money.

Backstom’s argument is that the case is weak because the FBI’s secretly recorded conversations show that Lackey asked Balducci for the cash, rather than Balducci making an unsolicited offer.

“Judge Lackey’s demand for money in return for exercising his judicial responsibility constitutes extortion, not attempted bribery,” the motion says.