Famed Miss. judge gets 18 months for lying to FBI

Published 11:54 pm Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bobby DeLaughter, a history-making prosecutor who became a judge, was sentenced Friday to 18 months for federal obstruction in a case that ended his career and brought down some of the most powerful lawyers in Mississippi.

The 55-year-old DeLaughter, sentenced by U.S. District Judge Glen Davidson in Aberdeen, apologized in the courtroom.

“I do want to express my sincere apologies not only to this honorable court, but to all my former colleagues, the people of Mississippi, and especially the people of Hinds County,” DeLaughter said. He must report to prison on Jan. 4.

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The former Hinds County circuit judge pleaded guilty in July to obstruction of justice. He admitted lying to an FBI agent during a judicial corruption investigation.

Davidson said DeLaughter had brought shame to the profession. The judge told DeLaughter he had experienced extreme highs and lows in his career.

“You’ve been to peaks and today you stand in a very deep valley,” Davidson said.

The bearded DeLaughter was visibly tense. Wearing a dark gray suit, he fidgeted with a jacket button as he approached the bench.

DeLaughter made a name for himself in 1994 when he was an assistant district attorney and helped convict Byron de la Beckwith for the 30-year-old murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Evers was gunned down in 1963. The trial was the basis for the 1996 movie “Ghosts of Mississippi,” with Alec Baldwin playing DeLaughter. DeLaughter also wrote a book about the case, “Never Too Late: A Prosecutor’s Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case.”

DeLaughter’s attorney, Thomas Durkin, said he hoped his client’s life wouldn’t be judged on the obstruction case.

“But for this incident, Bobby DeLaughter’s life has been nothing short of noble and spectacular. Nothing that happens here today will diminish that,” Durkin said after the sentencing.

DeLaughter’s reputation was solid by 2002, when then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove appointed him to an open judicial seat. He was later elected to the position.

His storied career came crashing down in the bribery scandal that also snagged Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, the chief architect of the multibillion-dollar tobacco litigation of the 1990s, depicted in the movie “The Insider,” starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

DeLaughter was presiding over a lawsuit in which a lawyer sued Scruggs for a bigger cut of millions of dollars in legal fees from asbestos litigation. Prosecutors said DeLaughter ruled in Scruggs’ favor in the case in exchange for a promise that he’d be considered for a federal judgeship. DeLaughter ruled in 2006 that Scruggs didn’t owe the former partner anything more than a belated $1.5 million payment. The ruling was contrary to the findings of a special master appointed to weigh the evidence before trial.

A settlement was reached in the lawsuit Thursday, said Charlie Merkel, an attorney who represents the lawyer who sued Scruggs. The terms of the settlement agreement were confidential, Merkel said.

DeLaughter only pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. As part of DeLaughter’s plea deal, prosecutors dropped conspiracy and mail fraud charges.

He asked to serve his sentence either in a prison in Montgomery, Ala., or one in Pensacola, Fla.

Beckwith’s son, Byron de la Beckwith Jr., said, “He’s getting a slap on the wrist. A very light slap.” He also said DeLaughter should not be allowed to self-report to prison or request where he can serve his time. Wearing a maroon jacket with a Confederate flag pin on the lapel, Beckwith said DeLaughter should have left the court in handcuffs.

Medgar Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, said earlier during a telephone interview that she was saddened by DeLaughter’s fall.

“It’s just very sad about what has happened in Bobby’s life. I have known him only to be an upstanding citizen, dedicated to his work, and certainly a large degree of bravery that has run through his adult life,” Evers-Williams said.