JULY 31, 2009
A respected Mississippi judge, who as a prosecutor earned acclaim for the conviction of a white supremacist in a civil rights-era murder, has pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and is headed to prison.
The popular Hinds County circuit judge, Robert DeLaughter, was indicted earlier this year with five felonies—including bribery and conspiracy—but the plea deal drops the four more serious charges and avoids a messy and embarrassing trial. Prosecutors say that the disgraced judge exchanged favorable rulings for consideration to the federal bench.
A millionaire attorney (Richard Scruggs) in prison for bribing two judges, influenced DeLaughter by promising to help him get the federal appointment through his brother-in-law who at the time was Republican U.S. Senator (Trent Lott). DeLaughter presided over a multi million-dollar asbestos fee dispute between Scruggs and his former business partner when he was bribed and his ruling saved Scruggs $15 million.
The corrupt judge repeatedly lied to FBI investigators about his role in the bribery scheme and confidently demanded the charges against him be dropped because he never received anything of value but rather a “meaningless courtesy call” from the lawmaker who tried to influence him.
In a motion to dismiss the charges, DeLaughter claimed the senator’s phone call did not meet the criteria of a bribe because it was nothing of value. Lott, who abruptly resigned in 2007, has acknowledged calling DeLaughter and telling him that his attorney brother-in-law (Scruggs) had told him what a “fine judge” he was. As a U.S. Senator one of Lott’s duties was to recommend nominees for federal judgeships and DeLaughter had already thrown his name into the pool.
The plea agreement essentially ends the career of a highly regarded jurist who earned worldwide accolades in the 1990s for prosecuting the man who killed Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963. The trial was the subject of a Hollywood movie (“Ghosts of Mississippi”) in which an award-winning actor starred as DeLaughter.
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