JACKSON, Miss. — He was an internationally acclaimed prosecutor before becoming a well-respected judge on the Hinds County bench. Now Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter is expected to take his seat behind bars after pleading guilty Thursday to obstruction of justice for lying to an FBI agent investigating corruption. A sentencing date has not been set. It will be before U.S. District Judge Glen Davidson. DeLaughter's plea agreement calls for him to serve 18 months in prison. The remaining four counts of mail fraud conspiracy and involvement in a bribery scheme have been dismissed as part of that agreement. However, Davidson has the leeway to reject the agreement. If he does, DeLaughter can withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial. It is the tragic end to what seemed like a fairy tale career, captured in part in the 1996 Rob Reiner film, Ghosts of Mississippi, which described events leading to the successful reprosecution in 1994 of Klansman Byron De La Beckwith. DeLaughter penned a book about the experience, Never Too Late, in which he talked about overcoming impossible odds to prosecute Beckwith, who shot NAACP leader Medgar Evers in the back in 1963. Evers' brother, Charles, said he's saddened to see DeLaughter plead guilty. In prosecuting Beckwith, DeLaughter "lost a lot of friends," he said. "To me, it's such a terrible thing to see him go out like this. I just hope when the judge sentences him, he will look at the good things he's done in the past, not just with Medgar." As a judge, DeLaughter has drawn praise for work, moving his docket quickly and handling as many as 1,200 cases in a year. And he has been praised for his innovations, getting bad check writers to work off their debts, rather than sending them to prison for eight years or more. The case DeLaughter pleaded guilty to Thursday involved multimillionaire Dickie Scruggs, who earned his fortune through settlements of mass torts against asbestos and tobacco companies and also was portrayed in a Hollywood movie — the 1999 film, The Insider.
Scruggs had already pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe DeLaughter in a legal fees lawsuit filed by Scruggs' former partner, Bob Wilson. According to prosecutors, the bribe itself was not money, but Scruggs recommending DeLaughter for a federal judgeship to his brother-in-law, then-U.S. senatorTrent Lott. A Lott spokesman has said the senator made a "courtesy call" to DeLaughter and that DeLaughter was never seriously considered for the position. Lott recommended someone else. DeLaughter has vehemently denied he took any bribe, money or otherwise, and has repeatedly insisted he ruled according to law in Scruggs' case. According to his attorneys, he passed a lie-detector test in which he said he was never influenced in the case. But Thursday, DeLaughter admitted he lied to FBI agents in 2007 when he said he "never spoke with" his former boss, one-time Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters, about the Wilson case. The Scruggs' legal team has said they hired Peters to influence DeLaughter. "I'm pleased to see another of the wrongdoers brought to justice," said Wilson's lawyer, Charlie Merkel of Clarksdale, Miss., who attended Thursday's hearing. "I can't imagine a more despicable act by a judicial official," Merkel said. DeLaughter's plea shows that the story told by then-lawyers Joey Langston and Tim Balducci is true, he said.
Wilson and another former law partner, Alwyn Luckey, sued Scruggs in 1994 for legal fees they say Scruggs owed them from asbestos litigation. In 2005, a federal magistrate judge ordered Scruggs to pay $17 million to Luckey. The next year, a special master in Hinds County Circuit Court recommended Scruggs also owed back legal fees to Wilson, prompting Wilson's lawyers to ask for $15 million. In recent sworn testimony, Balducci described how they retained Peters to influence DeLaughter and how they would send possible pleadings to Peters — only to get back marked up copies for revisions. DeLaughter eventually rejected the special master's recommendation, concluding Scruggs owed Wilson no more than a belated $1.5 million payment. Balducci said DeLaughter ruled in the end that Scruggs owed zero, despite a lack of any documentation. "If you look back, in the history of that case, the boxes and boxes, and volumes of documents in that case and all of the orders issued by Judge DeLaughter in that case, that order, singularly, is the only order that he ever entered with no support, no reasoning, no grounds, no basis," Balducci said. DeLaughter is expected to lose his law license and his seat on the bench. He has been suspended with pay from the bench since March 2008 pending an investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Performance. His judicial salary is more than $104,000.
Peters, who received $1 million from Scruggs for his work, received immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony against DeLaughter, whom he once joined forces with to prosecute Beckwith. As part of his cooperation, Peters turned over $425,000 remaining from the $1 million along with his law license. Matt Steffey, professor of Mississippi College School of Law, is among those angered that Peters — who has endured his share of investigations and charges — has dodged a conviction again. He believes what's happened to DeLaughter resembles a Shakespearean tragedy. "Unlike the other players in this drama, he did not gain great wealth," he said. Instead, DeLaughter's flaw was misplaced loyalty, he said. "Many people see it as tragic because but for his longtime friend and mentor, Ed Peters, initiating unlawful activity, Judge DeLaughter would remain a public servant." It was loyalty Peters himself did not display, he said. "When push came to shove, he was willing to implicate his friend in order to avoid prison time himself."