Famed Miss. judge faces prison for lying to FBI

AP News
Posted: Nov 13, 2009 6:25 AM

Bobby DeLaughter made history as a young prosecutor who put away a notorious civil rights-era assassin. The case became the subject of books and a movie, and put DeLaughter on a path to becoming a Mississippi judge.

On Friday, DeLaughter will be the one standing before a judge, and the next chapter of his life most likely will be behind bars.

DeLaughter, a 55-year-old former Hinds County circuit judge, pleaded guilty in July to a federal obstruction of justice charge. He admitted that he lied to an FBI agent during a judicial corruption investigation that brought down some of the most powerful lawyers in Mississippi.

"It's a tragic fall. When you have a movie made after you and you're really a national hero, to be facing sentencing, I'm sure is a great embarrassment," said Ronald Rychlak, an associate dean at the University of Mississippi School of Law, who has followed the case.

DeLaughter (deh-LAW'-ter) 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, so many years later, got international attention and 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 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 a judge 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.

If DeLaughter had not taken a plea deal, Scruggs' brother-in-law, former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, could have been a witness in the case.

As part of DeLaughter's plea deal, prosecutors dropped conspiracy and mail fraud charges and recommended an 18-month sentence. There's no requirement for U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson in Aberdeen to follow that recommendation.

When DeLaughter pleaded guilty in July, his attorney, Thomas Durkin, said his "tragic flaw" was just talking to former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters, his mentor during the Beckwith prosecution. Durkin had no new comment this week, but said he stands by the previous statement.

Prosecutors, however, said Scruggs and his associates paid Peters $1 million to work behind the scenes to influence DeLaughter in the lucrative asbestos litigation.

DeLaughter admitted that he lied when he told an FBI agent he "never spoke to Ed Peters" regarding the case.

Peters allegedly told DeLaughter that Lott, a powerful Republican senator at the time, would help him get appointed to the federal bench if he ruled in Scruggs' favor.

Peters cooperated in the investigation and was not charged.

Scruggs was already serving a five-year sentence for conspiring to bribe a different judge when he pleaded guilty in February to mail fraud in the Delaughter case. Scruggs had two years added to his sentence and agreed to testify.

Lott was not charged in the case. He called DeLaughter and several other people about an open seat on the federal bench, but recommended someone else for the job.

Medgar Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, said during a telephone interview that she is 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. "I hope his sentence will be short and he will be safe. I hope those who sacrificed him will run swiftly and be afraid to look over their shoulders."