ABERDEEN, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - Tort king Dickie Scruggs has won a chance to shorten his prison sentence at a hearing much like the trial he waived.
Senior U.S. Judge Gary Davidson plans an evidentiary hearing on March 26, on a motion to vacate a seven-and-a-half-year sentence that Scruggs accepted in 2009.
Davidson granted subpoena power to Scruggs, whose possible sources of testimony include former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, his brother-in-law.
Lott resigned from the Senate in 2007, a week before grand jurors indicted Scruggs on a charge that he bribed Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey.
Scruggs pleaded guilty, accepting a five-year sentence.
He agreed to serve two-and-a-half years more upon admitting he deprived Mississippi citizens of the honest services of Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter.
Scruggs allegedly arranged for Lott to call DeLaughter about possible appointment as a federal judge, while DeLaughter presided over a suit against Scruggs.
He admitted he paid lawyer Ed Peters $1 million to influence DeLaughter.
He moved to vacate the second plea last year, claiming the U.S. Supreme Court found that actions of a defendant in a similar case didn't constitute a crime.
Davidson denied a motion to enter judgment on the pleadings, but granted a hearing.
"At the evidentiary hearing, petitioner has the burden of demonstrating that, in light of all the evidence, it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Davidson wrote on Dec. 27.
"Subsequent to the evidentiary hearing, the court will make a probabilistic determination about how reasonable jurors would react to the overall, newly supplemented record," he wrote.
"In reaching this decision, the court may make credibility assessments and consider how the timing of the evidence bears on the reliability of that evidence," he wrote.
Scruggs made a fortune in the 1980s and 1990s, first in asbestos litigation and later in suits that states brought against cigarette makers.
His fortunes turned when former associates sued him in fee disputes.
In 2005, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry Davis awarded former associates about $18 million in damages and $9 million in legal fees and expenses.
In 2007, grand jurors at federal court in Oxford indicted Scruggs on charges that he provided a $40,000 bribe to Lackey.
They also indicted son Zach Scruggs, former state auditor Steve Patterson, and lawyers Sidney Backstrom and Tim Balducci.
All five pleaded guilty before District Judge Neal Biggers.
Grand jurors in Aberdeen then indicted Scruggs and DeLaughter.
They couldn't allege bribery, because Scruggs hadn't paid DeLaughter, so they alleged that Scruggs fraudulently deprived citizens of DeLaughter's honest services.
Scruggs pleaded guilty and apologized to Davidson, the bar, the people of Mississippi, and everyone he injured.
"I will make the best of this situation that can possibly be made and try to emerge a better man yet again," he said.
Scruggs' attitude changed after the Supreme Court reversed the conviction of former Enron chief Jeffrey Skilling on a charge of depriving shareholders of honest services.
Scruggs' lawyer, Edward Robertson of Jefferson City, Mo., moved to vacate his sentence last June.
Robertson wrote that recommending a judge for the federal bench constituted protected political speech.
"For the free speech analysis, it is quite irrelevant that it was inappropriate for petitioner to recommend judge Delaughter while petitioner had a case pending," he wrote.
"Bobby DeLaughter received nothing of value.
"Petitioner had no authority to compel Senator Lott to do anything."
U.S. Attorney Felicia Adams responded that Scruggs paid Peters $1 million to corruptly influence DeLaughter.
She wrote that Balducci, Patterson, and lawyer Joey Langston testified that Scruggs intended to make DeLaughter think he would help him attain his goal.
She wrote that unless witnesses deviate from previous testimony, Scruggs would be unable to prove his innocence.
Robertson replied that Scruggs had to buy influence to offset the influence of Bill Kirksey, who represented former Scruggs associate Robert Wilson.
After Davidson granted a hearing, Scruggs moved to approve direct transportation from federal prison in Montgomery, Ala., to district court in Aberdeen.
Roberson wrote that transportation according to federal regulations would involve two trips by air and a road trip, requiring four to six weeks and totaling 1,600 miles.
"Petitioner is currently a mathematics GED teacher at the federal correctional facility at Maxweell Air Force Air Force Base," he wrote.
"A prolonged absence will result in his students delaying or otherwise falling behind in their pursuit of their GED's."
He wrote that Scruggs would bear the expense of direct ground transportation.
Davidson granted the motion on Jan. 17.