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Scruggs gets hearing in appeal of conviction

By Jeff Amy

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 27 2011 4:44 p.m. MST

JACKSON, Miss. — Imprisoned former attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs has earned a March 26 hearing in his effort to overturn his 2009 conviction in a corruption case involving former Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter.

Senior U.S. District Judge Glen Davidson granted the hearing Tuesday, but made it clear that Scruggs would have to meet a high standard before Davidson would toss the conviction.

Scruggs has argued in U.S. District Court in northern Mississippi that limits imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court on so-called honest services fraud mean no juror would today convict him of the crime to which he pleaded guilty.

Scruggs, 65, is being held in federal prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. He's not projected to get out of jail until 2015, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Scruggs had already been convicted of bribing Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey in a separate dispute over legal fees, but the plea in the DeLaughter case added to his prison sentence.

The honest services law says it's a crime for a public official to deprive citizens of honest services while in office or to be involved in such a crime. The Supreme Court found problems with the law in the conviction of former Enron chief Jeffrey Skilling. The Supreme Court ruled June 24, 2010, that prosecutors can use the law only in cases where evidence shows the defendant accepted bribes or kickbacks.

Scruggs was charged with enticing DeLaughter to rule for him in a dispute over legal fees by saying Scruggs' brother-in-law, then-U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, would help DeLaughter get a federal judgeship. Scruggs argues that his guilty plea should be overturned because DeLaughter accepted no money from him and never explicitly agreed to take a bribe.

DeLaughter was sentenced to 18 months in November 2009 after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI in the Scruggs case. He was released in April.

Though Scruggs won a hearing Tuesday, Davidson ruled against a number of other motions that he made. The judge denied Scruggs' efforts to take new depositions and subpoena new documents before the hearing, saying Scruggs should have uncovered those facts before pleading, or gone ahead to trial. Davidson wrote that Scruggs could rely on previous testimony and submit evidence at the hearing to prove his case.

Davidson also wrote that Scruggs will have to prove "actual innocence," meaning persuading the judge that jurors would not convict him today.

Scruggs has argued in his current court action that his push for DeLaughter was constitutionally protected political speech under the First Amendment, and that he shouldn't have been convicted for it. Scruggs also argued that the Skilling case means there had to be money exchanged and an explicit agreement between him and DeLaughter. Davidson rejected those arguments, finding that the law still allows a bribe to consist of any valuable good or service and that Scruggs' argument "finds no support in case law," and was "without merit."

Scruggs' son, Zach Scruggs, has made a similar argument about the Skilling case in hopes of getting his conviction overturned in the Lackey case. That case involved $40,000 in cash paid to Lackey for a favorable ruling in a lawsuit over legal fees from Hurricane Katrina litigation.

Zach Scruggs pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony for allegedly knowing about a crime. Zach Scruggs says he only knew of an attempt to influence the judge, or "earwig" him, not bribery, and his conviction should be thrown out.

Dickie Scruggs gained national prominence and earned hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1990s with a case that led to a multibillion-dollar settlement from tobacco companies. His efforts were portrayed in the 1999 film "The Insider" starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

DeLaughter, 57, was a former prosecutor who made a name for himself as an assistant district attorney in 1994 when he helped put away Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

The case was the basis for the 1996 movie "Ghosts of Mississippi," with Alec Baldwin playing DeLaughter. DeLaughter also wrote a book about the prosecution, "Never Too Late: A Prosecutor's Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case."

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