ABERDEEN – Bobby DeLaughter resigned his circuit judgeship Thursday, just hours before prosecutors recommended an 18-month prison sentence for lying to the FBI about improper conversations with his former boss, Ed Peters of Jackson.
Whether DeLaughter knew it or not during the chats, Peters was working for then-Oxford attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs to ensure that DeLaughter ruled in his favor on a legal-fees lawsuit before the Circuit Court of Hinds County.
After the hearing in a packed federal courtroom, U.S. Attorney Jim Greenlee pronounced his work done on the case.
“This is over,” he said, noting that DeLaughter’s plea capped his office’s work on two bribery conspiracies with seven different defendants. All except DeLaughter are serving prison terms.
The cases have drawn international attention because of Scruggs’ former stature in leading mega-lawsuits against Big Tobacco, Big Asbestos and the insurance industry.
The government recommended 18 months in prison for DeLaughter; the charge carried a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He will be sentenced in six to eight weeks, pending a pre-sentence report and no objections to its findings.
Are cases really over?
Whether it’s really over was left hanging with a threat from DeLaughter’s attorney, Thomas Durkin of Chicago, who objected to most of the plea agreement’s language about allegations to which DeLaughter was not pleading guilty.
“He admitted to Count 5 only,” Durkin said at and after the hearing. Count 5 was for obstructing justice by lying to FBI investigators looking into the corruption of the legal-fees lawsuit, Wilson v. Scruggs, which DeLaughter presided over.
The case is still alive in Hinds County and in federal court.
During the hearing, Durkin responded to Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Norman’s version of the case facts, which were part of the agreement Durkin said he first saw as the hearing began about 2 p.m. before Senior Judge Glen H. Davidson.
“We do not admit to any of these allegations,” Durkin told Davidson about Counts 1-4. “We intended to go to trial on those counts – we will go to trial on those counts.”
Norman responded to Davidson, saying, “If Mr. DeLaughter wants a trial, our witnesses are here and that’s what we can do.”
Davidson told Durkin to file a formal objection to the agreement, but that DeLaughter admitted to the required elements of Count 5, regardless.
If DeLaughter and his attorneys do not agree with his sentence from Davidson, they can withdraw the guilty plea and go to trial. If they agree, the other charges are dismissed.
But after it was all over, Greenlee said his office has no further need for the witnesses – Scruggs, former Booneville attorney Joey Langston and former state Auditor Steven Patterson of New Albany, held in Oxford, and former New Albany attorney Timothy Balducci, held in Monroe County.
All were brought from federal prisons to prepare for an Aug. 17 trial.
DeLaughter, 55, of Raymond faced 85 years in prison, if convicted on all the charges.
Norman also told the court he knows of no other jurisdiction “interested” in DeLaughter.
DeLaughter surprised the audience as the hearing began by saying he had been the 7th District’s circuit judge “up until this morning, when I tendered my resignation to the governor.”
Like the other attorneys convicted in these bribery investigations, DeLaughter is expected to lose his law license.
DeLaughter is best known for winning a conviction of Byron Dela Beckwith for the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Beckwith’s son was among the courtwatchers Thursday.
In a separate deal Feb. 10, Scruggs pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe DeLaughter by exploiting the judge’s desire for a federal bench seat.
Scruggs reportedly asked his own brother-in-law, then-Sen. Trent Lott, to recommend DeLaughter for an open sat on the Southern District court. Lott maintains he never did more than make a courtesy call to DeLaughter about his possible candidacy.
Scruggs had time added to the sentence he is serving for his 2008 guilty plea in the scheme to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey of Calhoun City. He and others have been helping the government develop its case.
Former Hinds District Attorney Ed Peters avoided prosecution, apparently with a deal to cooperate with the investigation.
Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal