Delays in Scruggs case move trial again

John O'Brien Jan. 16, 2008, 1:33pm



OXFORD, Miss. - For a second time, the trial of prominent Mississippi trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs is being pushed back by more than a month.

U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers told those in his courtroom Wednesday morning that Scruggs' bribery trial will begin March 31 instead of Feb. 25. Following the November indictment of Scruggs and four others, the first trial date was set for Jan. 22.

"I'm not going to continue this trial for a long period of time," Biggers said.

Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys for Scruggs, his son Zach and attorney Sidney Backstrom, will have until Feb. 11 to file pretrial motions. Hearings on those motions will be heard on or before Feb. 25.

Those were just a few of the several issues decided during the hearing, described as "routine" by the prosecutors. Most of the time was dedicated to arguments over evidence obtained by federal prosecutors to which Scruggs counsel John Keker and Backstrom counsel Frank Trapp feel entitled.

The three remaining defendants are facing charges that they offered Lafayette Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey $40,000 for a favorable ruling in a $26.5 million attorneys fees dispute. The fees were earned when 640 Hurricane Katrina cases against State Farm Insurance Cos. were settled.

Trial lawyer Joey Langston, who has defended Scruggs in court in the past, and former state Auditor Steven Patterson both entered guilty pleas last week over schemes that allegedly included Scruggs and are cooperating with federal prosecutors.

Patterson was business partners with attorney Timothy Balducci, who pleaded guilty soon after the Nov. 28 indictment and apparently led the feds to Langston, with whom he previously worked at The Langston Law Firm.

Scruggs is known mainly for leading a group of attorneys who negotiated a $246 billion settlement with the tobacco companies on behalf of several states, a process that became the inspiration for the 1999 film "The Insider." That group of attorneys earned $1.4 billion in fees.

Wednesday, Keker and Trapp argued that the government's inability and unwillingness to hand over certain pieces of evidence is putting a strain on their capabilities to file pretrial motions.

A taint team has not finished examining a computer lifted during the feds' raid on the Scruggs Law Firm. It is attempting to locate a certain e-mail on the computer's hard drive, but has been unsuccessful.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Sanders said he has called the team several times to ask the cause of the delay.

"They vary depending on the circumstances, the amount of material they have to look at," assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Dawson added after the hearing. "I'm not technologically advanced enough to comment on why."

The results of the search will be provided to Keker before the feds.

Keker also requested transcripts of the phone calls the feds plan to use as evidence. Transcripts are used as jury aids but are not entered as evidence. Keker argued that he needs the transcripts to include quotes from them in his motions.

Sanders estimated that he would use 20-25 calls as evidence, with a final list coming by Monday. FBI agent William Delaney has been the only one working to transcribe the calls and said he could be done in 1-2 weeks.

"He's not going to finish in 1-2 weeks," Keker told Biggers. "He's not even going to know what all they want until Tuesday."

Keker added that new evidence from the case concerning Langston may be entered and will also cause a delay. The government can present it under Rule 404B, which provides for the disclosure and notice of evidence of other crimes, wrong or acts.

Federal prosecutors allege that Langston helped Dickie Scruggs attempt to bribe Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter with an appointment to the federal bench in another of Scruggs' disputes, this one over attorneys fees from asbestos suits.

It is those charges to which Langston pleaded guilty. His plea agreement says he will serve no more than three years in prison.

Using Jan. 30 as the best guess for when the evidence will be finalized, Biggers set the new schedule. Keker also has a possible scheduling conflict if a trial in California that begins March 18 does not get wrapped up in time.

Scruggs, 61, faces up to 75 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.

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