Scruggs stood in front of the judge’s bench, straight, with shoulders back, beside his California attorney John Keker who was the only member of the defense legal team there for Scruggs….“Do you fully understand what is happening here today,” Biggers asked him.
Prominet attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs and a member of his firm, Sidney Backstrom, pleaded guilty this morning to conspiring to bribe a circuit court judge.
A third defendant, Scruggs’ son Zach, will stand trial alone on federal judicial bribery charges.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Norman, the younger Scruggs will be on trial as planned, but unconfirmed statements in court earlier this morning hinted at a later date than March 31, which was the date set by Senior Judge Neal Biggers Jr. to prosecute the three together.
The guilty pleas came as a surprise to many in the packed courtroom, although some observers said they had thought it was a possibility.
The government recommended a sentence of five years in prison for Scruggs and 2 1/2 years for Backstrom. They also will pay a maximum fine of $250,000 each and a court fee.
The Scruggses, Backstrom, former New Albany attorney Timothy Balducci and former state Auditor Steven Patterson were indicted Nov. 28 on six counts of conspiring to bribe Judge Henry Lackey of Calhoun City for an arbitration order in a $26.5 million Katrina legal-fees lawsuit.
Balducci and Patterson pleaded guilty a short time later and have been cooperating with the government against the other three.
The courtroom looked different from previous hearings – none of the defense team was seated in the railed-in area near the judge’s bench until seconds before the 10 a.m. start time.
Then, the bailiff told them “the judge is ready” and they filed back into his chambers for a discussion known only to them.
It also was different because Dickie Scruggs’ wife was in the courtroom, which was something new. Her eyes were filled with tears, as were Backstrom’s even before the proceedings began.
And Zach Scruggs was not in the courtroom, although his Missouri attorneys were. They had plans to argue his renewed motion to dismiss his indictment.
Before Biggers accepted their pleas, Scruggs and Backstrom admitted in open court that they had done what the government said they had done in Count One – they had conspired to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey of Calhoun City for a favorable order in a Katrina-related legal fees case.
When it was Backstrom’s turn to speak, he began quietly, “I want to apologize to the court…” then his voice trailed off as he broke down, his voice choked with emotion.
Dickie Scruggs, arguably the most famous plaintiffs’ attorney in the U.S., looked pale and thin but carried himself with a bit more control than his younger colleague at The Scruggs Law Firm, headquartered on the storied Square in Oxford.
Scruggs stood in front of the judge’s bench, straight, with shoulders back, beside his California attorney John Keker who was the only member of the defense legal team there for Scruggs.
The 61-year-old Ole Miss Law School grad and legal giant-killer, as well as Backstrom, likely will voluntarily surrender their law licenses, as has co-defendant Timothy Balducci of New Albany, who pleaded guilty in December although he was wired and cooperating with the government at least a month earlier.
“Do you fully understand what is happening here today,” Biggers asked him.
“Yes, I do,” Scruggs responded.
Questioned about whether he had discussed his decision to plead guilty with his attorney, Scruggs responded, “With my attorney, my wife and my family.”
Although Biggers will have the final say about their sentences, the government will ask dismissal of five other counts against Dickie Scruggs and Backstrom in connection with the conspiracy to bribe Lackey.