Anonymous jury not for Backstrom

John O'Brien Mar. 13, 2008, 12:39pm

Dickie Scruggs

OXFORD, Miss. - Indicted trial lawyer Sidney Backstrom has told a federal judge that he has no interest in being put on trial alongside high-profile attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs as the two battle judicial bribery charges.

Backstrom filed a motion to sever his trial on Wednesday, his second such attempt. The first was denied by U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers.

Scruggs, son Zach and Backstrom are all alleged to have offered $40,000 to Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey in exchange for a favorable ruling in a dispute over at least $26.5 million in attorneys fees earned in Hurricane Katrina settlements with State Farm Insurance Cos.

Backstrom says the Court's granting of an anonymous jury should lead to the separation of his trial.

Biggers granted a request for an anonymous jury, which prevents information about the jurors from being obtained by the parties, their counsel and the media. Scruggs is asking the judge to reconsider, while Backstrom says it violates his rights.

"(T)his Court rejected Mr. Backstrom's argument that a severance was required, in part, due to the immense amount of adverse pre-trial publicity," Trapp wrote. "Now the Court has relied in part on the public notoriety -- as demonstrated by the adverse pre-trial publicity -- as a bases for granting an anonymous jury.

"The publicity focuses almost exclusively on Richard Scruggs. It is Richard Scruggs prominence that lead to the extraordinary, sensational attention to the case. On the other hand, none of the publicity focuses on Mr. Backstrom.

"When he is referenced by name, it is as a co-defendant of Richard Scruggs and Zach Scruggs. The Court's reliance on the notoriety as a bases of granting an anonymous jury shows the pre-trial publicity is a unique, prejudicial force against Mr. Backstrom."

The introduction of Rule 404(b) evidence by the Government is intended to show evidence of similar acts. This is apparently related to an investigation in Hinds County, where Joey Langston admitted to attempting to bribe Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter with consideration for a federal judgeship in another attorneys fees dispute involving Scruggs and brought by William Roberts Wilson, Jr.

"(T)he Government's proffered evidence regarding the Wilson case involves an alleged scheme with prominent features different than the one alleged in the instant indictment," Trapp wrote. "Presently, there is no allegation in the Wilson case that Judge DeLaughter requested he be paid money in exchange for a favorable ruling.

"Rather, the allegations in Wilson is that a recommendation for a federal judgeship was offered in exchange for a favorable ruling. In this case, by contrast, the undisputed evidence proves that the idea for payment of money originated with the FBI through Judge Lackey."

In the Government's response, federal prosecutors came up with no new arguments and referred Biggers to their original opposition to the severance of Backstrom's trial.

"The defendant Backstrom seeks to renew his motion for severance with a rehash of his previous arguments, all of which have been considered by the Court and rejected," they wrote.

The three are scheduled for a March 31 trial. Attorney Timothy Balducci and former state Auditor Steven Patterson have already pleaded guilty to the alleged scheme.

The sides will meet for a hearing Friday to discuss Zach Scruggs' motion to dismiss. Monday is the scheduled deadline for all plea deals.

Dickie 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.

Recently, criminal contempt charges against him in Alabama were dismissed.

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