February 13, 2008
A Barrage From the Scruggs Defendants
Any federal criminal prosecution will trigger motions from the defendant, and the hotly-contested prosecution of Dickie Scruggs and two other lawyers from his firm, his son Zach and Sidney Backstrom, has resulted in a veritable barrage of filings from the defense. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12(b)(3) requires that most substantive motions that go to the charges or the institution of the prosecution be made before trial or they are waived (absent a claim of plain error, an almost sure loser). So the defendants fired at the prosecution in a series of motions (available below) that, while unlikely to be granted, at least protect their positions for an appeal if there is a conviction. So here they come:
- Get Me the Heck Away From Dickie: Not that a son should spend too much time with his dad, so Zach filed a motion to sever his trial from his father's, as did co-defendant Backstrom. Among the reasons cited by both is the potential spill-over from other alleged wrongdoing by Dickie for supposedly bribing another state court judge in a different fee dispute. The government gave notice under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) that it intended to introduce such prior bad acts evidence against Dickie, and no one wants to be near that stuff if it is admitted. While Zach and Backstrom are not turning on Dickie necessarily, their attorneys do understand that there is a significant danger the jury will take a "pox on all defendants" approach if the three are sitting together at trial and they hear about a second bribe. This motion has at least a reasonable chance of succeeding, although Senior U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers certainly would not relish hearing the same case three times, and prosecutors lose much of their leverage over Backstrom if his trial is split off from Dickie's, so look for strong opposition from the U.S. Attorney's Office.
- The Government Was Simply Outrageous: Here the defendants are the Three Musketeers, filing a joint motion to dismiss for outrageous government conduct. Citing to the dismissal of charges in U.S. v Stein (KPMG prosecution), U.S. v. Scrushy (perjury charges in the HealthSouth prosecution), and U.S. v. Stringer (misleading defendants by the SEC), the defendants cite the conduct of the state court judge in encouraging the purported bribe as evidence that the government manufactured the charges. Unfortunately for the Scruggs defendants, the three cases they rely on also involved other constitutional violations found by the district courts as supporting the dismissal, and dismissing charges purely on the ground of outrageous government conduct happens about as often as Ole Miss challenges for the SEC title in football, and maybe even less frequently than that. It's always worth a shot, but don't look for this one to gain much traction.
- What Does That Statute Mean: The defendants moved to dismiss three of the charges filed under Sec. 666, the broad federal statute that applies to bribery of "agents" of state and local government. The argument is largely a statutory one, that the state court judge who was to receive the putative bribe does not meet the statutory requirements to be an agent of a local government because he has no administrative duties and that the bribe would not affect the operations of the county in which he sat. They also throw in a constitutional argument that the statute violates the Tenth Amendment -- you don't hear that one very often, and it's not something that has gotten defendants very far in other cases challenging federal criminal statutes.
- Get That Bribery Evidence Away from Me: The three defendants also moved to keep out the evidence of the other alleged bribe by Dickie, raising the usual arguments that it is prejudicial character evidence and has not been proven so it will trigger the much-feared "trial within a trial." The mention of a second bribe could be powerful evidence against all three because it would establish a pattern of misconduct, so this may be the most important motion filed by the defense. This type of ruling is always fraught with danger for the district court because an erroneous decision to admit the evidence can result in a reversal of a conviction.
- Get Us the Heck Out of Mississippi: While Dickie has certainly never been shy about publicity, the defendants did ask for a change of venue to move the case out of Mississippi because of prejudicial pretrial publicity. The case is certainly a very big deal in the Magnolia State, but change-of-venue motions are almost sure losers -- just ask Jeffrey Skilling, who faced the wrath of a Houston jury. Except in perhaps the extreme cases involving significant violence that triggers a strong community reaction, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, venue motions just don't go over very well with federal judges, who pride themselves on being able to seat an unbiased jury even if they might overestimate their abilities in this regard.
The three defendants also refiled their motion to suppress evidence from the wiretaps and search of the Scruggs Law Firm office, arguing that the government misled the magistrate who issued the warrants. Another tough one to win, but necessary to avoid waiving the claim. After a quiet couple weeks, it's back to the fireworks down in the Northern District of Mississippi. (ph)
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