Due process of law butts heads with free press in Scruggs case

Victoria Johnson Hoggatt Mar. 3, 2008, 1:00pm



OXFORD, Miss. - Legal superstar-turned-criminal defendant Richard "Dickie" Scruggs has a constitutional right to a fair trial with an impartial jury. Mississippi's public has a right to know, and Mississippi media has a right to print allegations about Scruggs.

Attorney John Keker, who heads up the legal team for Scruggs, told federal judge Neal Biggers in hearings on a motion to change the venue of his trial for judicial bribery from Mississippi that Scruggs could not get a fair trial in Mississippi, citing the disparity in coverage of the criminal indictments by the Mississippi press versus national press.

Although Biggers denied Keker's motion, he ruled in Scruggs' favor Wednesday, allowing a questionnaire to be mailed to potential jurors. Not all of the proposed questions submitted by Keker will be allowed, though, as questions such as "Do you believe Mr. Scruggs is guilty or innocent?" will not be allowed.

Scruggs is set for a March 31 trial in Oxford as he defends himself against charges that he and two others from his Scruggs Law Firm (son Zach and Sidney Backstrom) attempted to bribe Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey with $40,000 in exchange for a favorable ruling in a dispute over at least $26.5 million in attorneys fees earned in Katrina settlements.

Examination of the potential jurors in person in court will still be the primary method of jury selection.

"Other questions have been omitted because the court is of the opinion they are too personal and might cause some chilling effects of the jurors," Biggers said.

Keker asserts that while the Scruggs story is newsworthy nationally, only in Mississippi is Scruggs front-page news every day. Only in Mississippi was Dickie Scruggs' Christmas party news; only in Mississippi were Scruggs-former-defense-lawyer-turned-government-witness Joey Langston's attempts to sell his condo in Telluride newsworthy.

Keker's motion cited over 100 articles and blogs to assert that Mississippians have already made judgments of Scruggs' guilt, citing blogs wherein commenters referred to Scruggs as "scum".

In a particularly poignant moment of the hearing on the motion for change of venue, Judge Biggers asked the Keker legal team if not one of the Mississippi articles reviewed by them in preparation of their motion for a change of venue was favorable to the possibility that Scruggs may be innocent.

Keker invoked the sympathy of onlookers when he related in front of his client, Scruggs, that the answer was "No"; that at best, defense investigators found some sentiment of "I hope it's not true"; and that the majority of articles reflected the tone of embarrassed Mississippians, "glad he is getting his comeuppance."

Keker asserted that lack of favorable Mississippi press was not evidence of guilt, but rather of human nature, that when a man is charged with something serious, friends, admirers, and take a "wait-and-see" step back.

Judge Biggers himself brought up Mississippi author John Grisham's comments that he didn't "believe it" (the allegations of judicial bribery) when Grisham heard the announcement of Scruggs' indictment. Keker countered that the Grisham interview was in the New York Times.

Citing several sensational trials where a change of venue was not granted, the government asserted that the test for necessity of a change of venue was not whether or not the community had extensive knowledge of the evidence and parties, nor whether they had formed an opinion of guilt or innocence, but whether the jury in Mississippi would be able to set aside their prejudice, and follow the law based on the facts presented in evidence, and that jury examination and selection upon voir dire was the best mechanism to ensure a fair and impartial trial.

Keker was prepared for Biggers' dismissal of his motion for change of venue, and immediately tendered a special jury questionnaire to be mailed to potential jurors to attempt to ferret out those who had made a rush to judgement.

Two of Scruggs' alleged co-conspirators, attorney Timothy Balducci and former state Auditor Steven Patterson have pleaded guilty, as has prominent Booneville attorney Joey Langston in another case. Langston says he tried to bribe Hinds Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter when he represented Scruggs in another attorneys fees dispute.

Scruggs gained much of his fortune in asbestos and tobacco litigation. His work led to the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which has an estimated worth of $246 billion for the 52 participating territories and states. Attorneys earned $1.4 billion in the settlement.

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