Wednesday, February 27, 2008

With the Defense Motions Gone, Will There Be a Plea in the Scruggs Case?

Senior U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers rejected the remaining motions filed by Dickie Scruggs and his two co-defendants, son Zach and Sidney Backstrom, clearing the way for trial at the end of March on the charges related to an alleged attempted bribe by confederate Tim Balducci.  With that goes the best chance Backstrom may have of avoiding a trial in which the spillover from the government's Rule 404(b) bad acts evidence is likely to paint the defendants as three peas in a corrupt pod.  The decisions are available below.

The key ruling by Judge Biggers was the rejection of the defense motion to exclude evidence related to a benefit provided to another state court judge -- a potential offer of a seat on the U.S. District Court by Dickie's brother-in-law, Senator Trent Lott (see earlier post here) -- that the government will use to show that Dickie and Zach engaged in a pattern of corruption under.  As described by the court:

There is no question that the extrinsic evidence offered in the present case constitutes a similar alleged act within the meaning established by the aforementioned case law. The 404(b) evidence reveals (1) the employing of a person not an attorney of record to approach a state court judge (2) with the intent to corrupt the state court judge in regard to (3) a fee dispute (4) involving two of the defendants herein as well as two others who have already entered guilty pleas in this case – all substantially the same elements as charged in the conspiracy count before the court in the present case.

This leads to the second rejected motion, the request by Zach and Backstrom to have their trials severed from Dickie's.  Judge Biggers accepted the government's assertion that Zach was also implicated in the other instance of corruption, and found that Backstrom can be protected by a jury instruction.  Unfortunately for Backstrom, the spillover effect may be significant because this appears to be particularly potent evidence.  While Backstrom has no direct connection to it, the impact may be substantial despite any instructions to the jury to consider the evidence only against his two co-defendants. The old "birds of a feather flock together" problem for the uninvolved co-defendant.

The third defense motion that fell on deaf ears was a request to suppress the wiretap evidence because of alleged government misconduct.  Judge Biggers rejected the defense claims that the government's lead agent misled the magistrate in order to obtain the wiretap warrant, and sent a message regarding his perception of the evidence of the attempted bribe:

In this court’s opinion, to send an attorney to a judge to get him to rule in a certain way – when that attorney is not of record in the case and professes to be a friend of the judge and when opposing counsel has no knowledge of the visit – amounts to an effort to corrupt a judge. In the same meeting with Judge Lackey, Balducci offered Judge Lackey a job as “of counsel” in Balducci’s law firm when the judge chose to retire. These actions are certainly a clear and gross violation of all known codes of ethics applicable to attorneys and judicial officers.  Indeed, when an act such as this occurs, perceived by the judge possibly to be an attempt to corrupt or bribe, it is incumbent on the judge to report the matter to appropriate authorities, which is what Judge Lackey did.

I get the feeling that the three defendants are not going to have the friendliest of judges presiding at their trial.  So the question now is whether Backstrom will break ranks and agree to cooperate against Dickie and Zach.  While I doubt we've seen the last defense motion before trial, and the closer we get the more such missives we're likely to see, the issue now becomes whether one -- or even two or three -- of the defendants decide not to risk a trial and the likely substantial sentence a conviction would bring.  This case only gets more interesting. (ph)

Download us_v_scruggs_order_denying_motion_in_limine_feb_26_2008.pdf

Download us_v_scruggs_order_denying_motions_to_sever_feb_26_2008.pdf

Download us_v_scruggs_order_on_motion_to_suppress_feb_26_2008.pdf

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