Miss. judge hires Ill. attorney in bribery case

Published 11:17 pm Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter has hired a former assistant U.S. attorney from Illinois to represent him in one of the most sweeping federal judicial bribery investigations in Mississippi.

DeLaughter pleaded not guilty Feb. 12 to five charges related to an alleged conspiracy in which he’s accused of giving an unfair advantage to former lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs in a dispute over millions of dollars in legal fees from asbestos litigation.

DeLaughter has hired Thomas Anthony Durkin of Chicago and another lawyer, Lawrence Little from Oxford, Miss., court records show.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“We look forward to vigorously defending Judge DeLaughter and his outstanding reputation,” Durkin said by telephone Wednesday.

Durkin’s most noted cases include representing Ramzi Binalshibh, the alleged main intermediary between Sept. 11 terrorist hijackers and al-Qaida leaders. Durkin, 62, also represented white supremacist Matt Hale, who is now serving a 40-year prison sentence for trying to solicit the murder of a federal judge.

DeLaughter is charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and obstruction. His arraignment last month came just two days after Scruggs, a noted anti-tobacco lawyer, pleaded guilty to a mail fraud charge in the case.

DeLaughter is most noted for prosecuting a white supremacist in a case later memorialized in the movie “Ghost of Mississippi.” DeLaughter was an assistant Hinds County district attorney in 1994 when he helped prosecute Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Delaughter wrote a book about the case.

DeLaughter’s boss at the time, then-Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters, was named as an unindicted coconspirator in the bribery case and is thought to be cooperating with prosecutors. Peters has given up his law license and the government seized $425,000, part of a $1 million payment he allegedly received to influence DeLaughter.

The attorney who had been representing DeLaughter, Cynthia Speetjens of Madison, filed a motion Wednesday to withdraw as his attorney “due to conflicts previously discussed” with the court. The conflict was not described in court records.

Speetjens worked for Peters when he was district attorney. She has not responded to numerous messages.

Scruggs, a chief architect of the multibillion-dollar tobacco settlements of the 1990s, has admitted he was involved in a scheme to entice DeLaughter to rule in his favor by promising he’d be appointed to the federal bench with help from Scruggs’ brother-in-law, former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott.

Lott has not been accused of wrongdoing. The former senator has said he talked to DeLaughter but ultimately recommended someone else for the job.

Scruggs was already serving five years for conspiring to bribe a north Mississippi judge when investigators began taking a hard look at the DeLaughter case. A plea deal in the DeLaughter case added two years to Scruggs’ sentence. The bribery investigation has also snagged a former Mississippi auditor, Scruggs’ lawyer son and two other former attorneys.