Saturday, January 09, 2010

Crooked prosecutor caught

There was corruption behind the virtuous pose. He was a self-seeker all along

Bobby DeLaughter, the prosecutor who secured the conviction in the infamous Medgar Evers Mississippi murder case, is himself now headed to prison. It was DeLaughter's dogged 1994 prosecution and the subsequent conviction of Ku Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith that helped trigger the reopening of dozens of civil rights cold cases.

His years in the robe came to an end in 2009, when DeLaughter pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for lying to an FBI agent in a far-reaching corruption probe that has rocked Mississippi's judicial system. When DeLaughter was sentenced in November, Byron De La Beckwith's son sat in the chamber wearing a Confederate flag pin on his red blazer. His father had also worn a Confederate pin during the 1994 trial.

DeLaughter is to begin serving his 18-month prison sentence today at a facility in Kentucky. "The man has now been destroyed, politically and economically. It's that serious," said Charles Evers, the brother of Medgar Evers. He said he is trying to raise money to help pay DeLaughter's expenses while he's in prison. "What can we do but fight for a man who fought for us?" he said. "I want DeLaughter to know I'm behind him 100 percent."

DeLaughter's attorney, Tom Durkin, refused CNN's request to speak to the prosecutor-turned-judge ahead of his incarceration. "Bobby DeLaughter remains a civil rights hero, and nothing is going to tarnish that," Durkin said. "The penalty he's paying is enormous, and I think it's sad and unfortunate. But that's simply the way it is."

Over the past month, CNN spoke with more than a dozen lawyers in Mississippi about DeLaughter's fall from grace. They paint a picture of an ambitious man with a brilliant legal mind who ran afoul of the law -- of friends betraying friends and of big-time money corrupting the system. Some take delight in his downfall; others call it a tragedy that has stained the legal community. In the end, the lawyers said, DeLaughter trusted one man too much: his mentor, Ed Peters, who exploited their friendship and then turned on DeLaughter to avoid prison.

"This is a Shakespearean tragedy in the sense that a person falls from grace due to their own character defects -- in this case, misplaced trust in a friend and, perhaps, some combination of ambition and hubris," said Matt Steffey, a law professor at Mississippi College School of Law.

The story of DeLaughter going from civil rights hero to convicted felon is complicated, involving years of contentious litigation in his courtroom. At the heart of the case is Dickie Scruggs, a high-powered lawyer who made tens of millions of dollars in tobacco and asbestos litigation. Scruggs is the brother-in-law of former Sen. Trent Lott and is now serving seven years in prison for trying to influence Mississippi judges, including DeLaughter.

According to prosecutors, Scruggs wanted to get to DeLaughter through his mentor, Peters, to try to influence DeLaughter's ruling in a high-stakes case, potentially worth $15 million. Peters received $1 million in illicit payments as compensation for his actions, prosecutors say. Peters was granted immunity in exchange for his cooperation.

"Mississippi would like to shake its image of being tied to civil rights crimes and the good ole boy network, and we see these two things overlap here," Steffey said. "It's enormously unfortunate for a person like Judge DeLaughter who, at the very least, accomplished heroic things with bringing Byron De La Beckwith to justice. And it's tragic for the people of Mississippi -- that the end story here is that he is a corrupt judge in prison."

DeLaughter has denied taking any money in the case or that he was improperly influenced. In his guilty plea, he admits to only obstruction of justice; the more serious charges of involvement in a bribery scheme and mail fraud conspiracy were dismissed as part of the deal....

"Bobby DeLaughter betrayed every single oath he ever took. He betrayed the whole system of justice that we live by," Kirksey said. "You measure a man by the whole of his life, not part of it. When the measure of the man is that he's dishonest in the end, then you have to wonder why he did anything in the beginning."

Merrida Coxwell was one of two lawyers who represented De La Beckwith in the 1994 trial. He has known DeLaughter for three decades, first as a defense attorney, then a prosecutor and finally as a judge. "Quite frankly, I thought he was a very moderate, straight-down-the-line judge," he said. He was shocked when allegations first surfaced. For a judge to be caught up in such a scandal, Coxwell said, is unfathomable. "If you can't have justice inside the justice system, then it's no good at all."

Original report here

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