On June 11, 2005, Jackson Police Officer Jeffrey Middleton ran a red light on Highway 18 while coming back from Raymond. Middleton had no siren or police lights on at the time, and a cop car without a blaring siren is just another death machine when it decides to ignore a traffic signal. When Middleton slammed into a car making a turn under a green light, driver Desmonde Harris probably didn't know what hit him—and certainly not that it was a man pledged to uphold the law.
Harris died immediately. The state charged Middleton with vehicular manslaughter with culpable negligence, a charge carrying up to 20 years in prison.
Hinds County District Attorney Faye Peterson had Middleton in an ineluctable corner. The case was cut and dry. There were reliable witnesses. The work schedule and records were sound. That was definitely Middleton's crushed car. That was certainly Harris' car containing his crushed body.
There was no getting around it: She had a tight case to put before a jury.
Knowing there was no room for either fight or denial, Middleton pled guilty to manslaughter, but then the policeman got a cushy deal from the state that, like Harris, he probably didn't see coming.
Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter virtually erased the plea by placing Middleton on probation for two years and withholding adjudication. In short, he refused to prosecute Middleton or put him before a jury that might not be so understanding.
Middleton was suddenly free and now immune from prosecution for Harris' death. DeLaughter's decision took away the possibility of another trial, with a different jury, with a different judge. Middleton was getting probation for wrongfully running a light and killing a man.
Enraged, Peterson howled, refusing to sign off on the court's decision not to prosecute.
Last spring, DeLaughter refused comment to the Jackson Free Press regarding the suspicion of his ties to the defendant's attorneys—former District Attorney Ed Peters and Tommy Mayfield, who worked as an assistant district attorney alongside him during Peters' administration.
"I won't discuss in the realm of the media a case that should be worked out in a courtroom," DeLaughter told the Jackson Free Press for a story that appeared April 4, 2007.
In retrospect, perhaps Peterson shouldn't have been too astounded. Stick around in one place long enough, and you start to grow roots, and former District Attorney Ed Peters—once her boss—has been around a long time. His style has raised questions from lawyers across the aisle from him over the years. But now, thanks to the twisting, dirty corruption saga surrounding Oxford attorney Dickie Scruggs, questions about Peters' judicial successes are going from quiet whispers to central exhibits in prominent court cases.
A trail of legal documents, and testimony, has begun to tell a new story. Suddenly, Faye Peterson—who was defeated last November by a candidate coached and pushed by her former boss Peters—is no longer a lone voice publicly expressing doubt about Hinds County's historical system of justice.
Dickie's Growing Shadow
The developing Scruggs case—which keeps casting new shadows on a near-weekly basis—is emboldening more people to speak up about cases in which Peters, and his former assistant district attorney-turned-judge, was involved.
"Very serious questions have been raised—and circulated throughout the entire country—about the relationship of Ed Peters and Judge DeLaughter. In this circumstance, the public interest in seeing that justice has been done impartially requires that the successor judge review these issues," wrote attorneys for Jeffrey Frisby in a Jan. 24, 2008, motion for stay of discovery. Frisby is a defendant in a trade secrets lawsuit that Mississippi company Eaton Aerospace filed against Frisby Aerospace, of North Carolina. Eaton alleges former employees snatched trade secrets for military contracts from Eaton and handed them over to their new employer—an Eaton competitor.
Frisby wants discovery in his case suspended until a successor judge can review DeLaughter's treatment due to Peters' involvement.
(A federal grand jury has since indicted the former Eaton employees over the same allegations, though no date for the criminal trial has been set as of Feb. 29.)
Frisby's lawyers indicate they have plenty of suspicion to draw upon in their argument for a stay of discovery, now made plain by the ongoing indictment against Scruggs, who headed the Katrina Group—attorneys who sued insurance companies over Hurricane Katrina claims. That battle began when former State Auditor Steve Patterson (who had resigned his state post in 1996 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor tax fraud regarding a license plate) pled guilty last year to attempting to bribe Lafayette County Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey. Lackey supposedly approached federal authorities with the news of the purported bribe and worked with them in gathering evidence supporting the accusation.
Patterson's guilty plea, which he submitted to U.S. District Court in Oxford, was a veritable monster, fresh off the lab table and lurching down the mountainside to the unsuspecting village of Hinds County. Patterson said the $40,000 bribe was an endeavor to obtain a favorable ruling in a $26.5 million suit against Scruggs regarding a dispute over Hurricane Katrina litigation fees. The Department of Justice indicted Scruggs, his son Zach and Patterson, along with attorneys Tim Balducci and Sid Backstrom in the Lackey case last November.
Ed Peters was one of the original Katrina Group attorneys, alongside Scruggs, Patterson, Balducci and others.
A well-known Balducci quote from the FBI indictment, possibly recorded through a phone tap or personal wire hook-up to Lackey or his office, depicts Balducci saying about Scruggs: "[H]e and I, um, how shall I say, for over the last five or six years there, there are bodies buried that, that you know, that he and I know where … where are, and, and, my, my trust in his, mine in him and his in mine, in me, I am sure are the same."
Attorneys say there's a big difference between Balducci promising bodies and Scruggs revealing said bodies.
In the meantime, Balducci is aiding the prosecution in gathering more dirt on Scruggs and those purported "bodies." The trial is set for the remaining defendants on March 31.
The Mississippi Bar is withholding action against Scruggs, since he has not suffered conviction at this point, though the bar has asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to terminate Langston's and Balducci's law licenses.
A Local Burial Ground?
Hinds County Circuit Court could prove to be a burial ground for at least one of Scruggs' "bodies," according to The Clarion-Ledger, which connected Peters to Scruggs in a Dec. 16, 2007, story via a U.S. Attorney search warrant apparently leaked to the paper. The warrant sought "documents related to the Hinds County case, as well as documents regarding payments to Jackson lawyer Ed Peters, who played no known role in the case."
Scruggs' attorney, Joey Langston, soon added plenty to the federal case, particularly regarding Peters. Langston—known for helping bag $115 million for the state of Mississippi in 2005 in a suit against defunct telecommunications giant WorldCom for back taxes—initially defended Scruggs against the Lackey indictment, but wound up dumping the case and coming forward with his own guilty plea. Incredibly, Langston told authorities he had his own shady connections to Scruggs, and pled guilty to dangling a special kind of bribe before Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter on behalf of Scruggs.
The indictment states: "From on or about January of 2006 and continuing until on or about March of 2007 … the defendant Joseph C. Langston, did knowingly and willfully conspire with Richard 'Dickie' Scruggs, Steven A. Patterson … and with others both known and unknown … to attempt to influence state Circuit Court Judge Robert 'Bobby' DeLaughter by providing a thing of value, that is, favorable consideration of Robert 'Bobby' DeLaughter for appointment to the federal district court bench in the Southern Judicial District of Mississippi, to obtain rulings in favor of Richard 'Dickie' Scruggs in the lawsuit styled Wilson v. Scruggs pending before Judge DeLaughter."
Scruggs allegedly was preparing to make use of his connection to former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott—who announced he was retiring his senatorial post Nov. 26, 2007. Agents stormed Scruggs' office with a search warrant Nov. 27, 2007. Lott is Scruggs' brother-in-law, and Balducci said Lott went so far as to call DeLaughter on his brother-in-law's behalf. Balducci also testified in February that Lott told DeLaughter he would put him on the list of potential candidates for the judgeship if he granted Scruggs a favorable ruling.
Lott has denied any involvement in the case and told reporters that his resignation had nothing to do with the brewing case against Scruggs. The Biloxi Sun-Herald reported this month, however, that both the defense and prosecution in the federal case against Scruggs plan to call Lott to the stand to speak on Scruggs' past behavior if U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr., gives them the go-ahead.
Scruggs has not yet been indicted in the DeLaughter case, and neither has DeLaughter, despite the implication of Langston's plea. Scruggs himself denies any attempts at buying influence over any judge, and DeLaughter denies that he took any bribes.
The Langston indictment (again, to which Langston pled guilty) further accuses Langston and his co-conspirators of traveling "on several occasions from the Northern District of Mississippi to Jackson, Mississippi, for the purpose of engaging a close personal friend of Judge DeLaughter as a 'consultant' to assist them in the case of Wilson v. Scruggs."
Langston specifically pled guilty to delivering $50,000 in cash in December 2005 to DeLaughter's close personal friend "for the purpose of retaining the close personal friend to influence Judge Robert 'Bobby' DeLaughter."
According to that same indictment, Langston admitted that around January 2006, Scruggs, Langston and the other co-conspirators agreed that if the Wilson v. Scruggs case "was resolved in (Scruggs') favor" that Langston, Patterson and DeLaughter's "close personal friend" could split the savings Scruggs would earn as a result of the favorable ruling.
The indictment charges that Langston, Patterson and the "close personal friend"—which it identified as Ed Peters—split $3 million saved by the case settlement between July 2006 and July 2007.
"… Langston, working with Balducci and Steven A. Patterson, contacted and retained the services of Ed Peters, a close personal friend of Judge DeLaughter. For his services, Langston agreed to pay Peters $50,000 in cash. After paying the $50,000, the parties agreed that they would also divide any money over and above what Scruggs was willing to pay in the Wilson matter," the indictment states. "In the end, based on this reverse contingency fee, Peters received an additional $950,000 for his services."
DeLaughter has not returned calls to the Jackson Free Press, but has denied the allegations to other reporters.
Throwing the Frisby?
Lawyers looking for an edge regarding their cases are not above using the DeLaughter-Peters connection for leverage.
The most flagrant accusations come from attorneys for Frisby Aerospace LLC, Triumph Group, Inc., and Frisby Aerospace former president Jeffrey Frisby, who charge DeLaughter with manipulating the case to Peters' advantage once the judge learned of the former district attorney's involvement.
Attorneys for Frisby say in a motion for stay of discovery in Hinds County Circuit Court that they were personally in the dark regarding Peters' participation until Peters accidentally revealed himself in a mis-sent e-mail to defense attorneys. Plaintiff attorney Fred Banks sent a Jan. 26, 2007, letter to a list of recipients, one of them Peters. Peters then responded with an e-mail to defense attorney secretary Cindy Hampton in March, offering advice on motions pending before DeLaughter. Peters also sent an e-mail to defense attorney Phillip Sykes, after Sykes politely informed Peters that he'd shot his letter to the wrong computer.
Hints of Peters' participation on the case didn't stop there, however. Defense lawyers claim Phelps Dunbar secretary Felicia Wilson sent another mass e-mail to DeLaughter and Peters in September. In addition, defendants claim in their motion that Peters has been accompanying plaintiff attorneys on witness interviews.
Peters' work has been limited to behind-the-scenes consulting work (such as when long-time client Mayor Frank Melton contracted him to quietly negotiate with the state on his behalf after his indictments in the Ridgeway Street demolition). Peters has never confirmed participation in the Frisby case, and has never returned a phone call to the Jackson Free Press to date for any story, including this one. He has never entered any appearance of record or manifested himself on any case pleadings. He's also never attended any conferences or dispositions, defense attorneys say.
But defendants claim that DeLaughter behaved differently after Peters' arrival, no matter how shadowy his entrance.
From January 2006 to January 2007, DeLaughter adopted many filings that attorneys say favor the defendants. In February 2006, DeLaughter adopted a Report and Recommendation motion regarding discovery information in favor of defendants, a March Report and Recommendation motion concerning case materials, and a June Report and Recommendation favoring defendants' argument regarding multiple discovery violations by Eaton.
But then Peters' name came up in the January 2007 e-mails, and defendants say DeLaughter changed his tune. DeLaughter rejected a December 2006 defendant-friendly Report and Recommendation regarding discovery abuses and denied defendants' motion to dismiss and for sanctions. He also rejected a June 2007 pro-defendant Report and Recommendation staying dispositions, removed Oxford attorney Jack Dunbar as special master after Dunbar submitted additional Report and Recommendations favoring the defendants, and rejected an October 2007 Report and Recommendation favoring Frisby.
Frisby's lawyers claim Peters arranged for Judge DeLaughter to dump Dunbar, who was replaced by Jackson lawyer Larry Latham. Latham later resigned as special master, saying his communication with Peters may have fouled his credibility in the case.
In court testimony, Latham said Peters spoke to him four days prior to Dunbar's removal about a potential appointment to the Eaton v. Frisby case. "Peters informed me that I was being considered for appointment as a special master in this case, … (and asked if) would I be interested if I were selected?" Latham said.
Also, according to transcripts, Peters left the message, "Don't bring up my name," with Latham's assistant in November, referring to the earlier conversation.
DeLaughter has since recused himself from the case, under the cloud of the federal corruption investigation. Hinds County Senior Trial Judge Swan Yerger said this month that he is reviewing DeLaughter's previous rulings to try to determine whether Peters had any link to them.
"If the integrity of the court has been compromised, the court can investigate that," Yerger stated in a Feb. 27 Associated Press story. "It definitely will be investigated by me or a special master. The court does have a number of questions."
DeLaughter has denied any wrongdoing in the Eaton case, and maintains his innocence regarding the federal investigation.
Nevertheless, Yerger accepted Latham's resignation from the Eaton case in February.
Attorneys could niggle over the details of the 2007 motions in the case, arguing that defendants' court submissions that year were a load of bunk, but Frisby and company feel they've catalogued a trend, and are happy to have another judge scrutinizing the events of the last year.
Even Eaton's attorneys are not arguing the matter. Eaton attorney Michael Wallace said Eaton agrees that a judge should review all the motions filed in the case, even if it means erasing their advantage.
Wallace is trying to wash his hands of Peters' ever-present cloud of controversy, denying that Eaton had brought him on exclusively to tip the scales.
"Eaton is not responsible for what Ed Peters did, and unless you can show intent, you can't sit here and say, 'Eaton did this,' and 'Eaton did that,'" Wallace told Yerger, according to the Associated Press. "There's no evidence that ties Eaton to misconduct."
Back to Middleton
The defendants' complaints in the Eaton case weren't limited solely to evidence implying DeLaughter's favoritism in respect to Peters' arrival. They're also quick to refer to another case with a Peters-DeLaughter connection. DeLaughter, they say, has been more than friendly with Peters' clients in the past—and the Jeffrey Middleton case, they say, proves it.
"The long-standing relationship between Peters, as former District Attorney for Hinds County, and Judge DeLaughter, (who worked under him) as his Assistant District Attorney, was well-known even before the events relating to the recent criminal indictments became public," states the Jan. 24, 2008, motion for stay of discovery in the Frisby case. "Indeed, the ability of Judge DeLaughter to be impartial in cases involving Peters had been the subject of public comment when DeLaughter allowed a police officer represented by Peters to plead guilty without serving any time for an accident, in which he ran a red light and killed a man. This led to questions in the Jackson Free Press about the propriety of Peter's involvement in proceedings before Judge DeLaughter."
That aspect of the motion refers back to Faye Peterson's howling fury and the April 4, 2007, Jackson Free Press story about DeLaughter's decision to not prosecute the Middleton case, despite District Attorney Peterson's strong mound of evidence.
DeLaughter's words to the Jackson Free Press—"I won't discuss in the realm of the media a case that should be worked out in a courtroom"—then were terse and uninformative, although he did offer an excuse or two to The Clarion-Ledger for going so easy on Middleton.
His argument, in essence: The victim's family seemed OK with it.
"This was not done lightly," DeLaughter told The Clarion-Ledger: "If there had been an objection made by the victim's family, it would have been an entirely different situation."
But normally, a judge will hold a pre-sentence investigation report prior to making a non-adjudication decision, wherein all parties have a chance to sound off on the judge's plan. If the family of a victim is prepared to write their loss off as a sad accident and forgive, they have their chance to weigh in at this hearing.
Peterson said DeLaughter deviated from procedure and skipped that portion of the trial, however. Winston Thompson III, the attorney for the Harris family, told The Clarion-Ledger that the family had not been aware of DeLaughter's impending decision until Peterson's office informed them after the decision.
Peterson told the Jackson Free Press then that she did not believe Harris' family was ever allowed "an opportunity to make a statement."
"I know we notified them of the date of the sentencing hearing, and explained to them all the variables involved, but that letter said nothing about the possibility of non-adjudication," Peterson said.
DeLaughter also told The Clarion-Ledger that the prosecution failed to object to the non-adjudication at the time of sentencing, but Peterson denied that statement, telling the Jackson Free Press that her prosecutor did make a formal objection to non-adjudication, questioning the judge's right to non-adjudicate in a crime against a person. Peterson said DeLaughter set that objection aside.
Peterson was vehement in her opposition, arguing that DeLaughter violated state law in giving Middleton a non-adjudicated sentence. "I don't know of any instance where a person charged with a crime against a person got his sentence non-adjudicated, especially if it's a homicide. Even if it's a vehicular manslaughter. ... The laws of the state of Mississippi say you don't get a non-adjudication when you kill somebody," Peterson said last spring.
Peterson went on to say then that her office would refuse to sign off on the decision, leaving Middleton hanging when his two-year probation was up. "I am not going to submit an order to a court that's not within the confines of the law, so this man is going to be stuck out there with an open adjudication, as far as I'm concerned," she said.
Middleton is free to petition the Mississippi Public Safety Commission to recognize the expungement of the conviction, but if the expungement doesn't meet the requirements of state law, the Public Safety Commission should not grant it.
Their refusal means Middleton will keep a non-adjudicated felony on his record and will probably have a difficult time reclaiming his cop job.
Peterson no longer gets to lob criticism from the district attorney's office. The mayor's choice for her job, Robert Shuler Smith, unseated Peterson during the 2007 special primary. According to Smith, Peters had asked him to run for the position some two years before; the former D.A. then openly backed Smith, appearing in ads on his behalf and appealing to Peters' strong support among older-generation Hinds County voters.
Rather Be the Pope
Peters' presence on a case has seemed to prove a boon to his clients on more than one occasion.
In 1996, Mike Kirk filed a breach of contract suit against Randy Pope and Dixieland Forest Products Inc. In 1998, however, Kirk filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and failed to disclose the Kirk v. Pope suit as an asset in his bankruptcy filing.
A 2005 Mississippi Supreme Court appeal of the case says Kirk's bankruptcy attorney Barney Eaton presumed the case was dormant. In October 2002, four years after Kirk's bankruptcy was discharged, Kirk v. Pope was quickly sliding down the pipe, so Kirk re-appeared before Eaton and said he was about to win some money. Eaton instructed him to re-open the bankruptcy case and properly report the judgment as an asset. Eaton filed a motion to reopen the case Oct. 25 of that year.
The jury awarded Kirk a judgment from Pope of $700,000 three days later, on Oct. 28.
Pope then fired attorney Leonard Melvin and hired Ed Peters and Jackson attorney Cynthia Stewart (who also did not return phone calls). Both lawyers filed a Nov. 26, 2002, motion to move the case to the federal court on the basis that it was related to the bankruptcy case. On June 24, 2003, the bankruptcy court remanded the case back to Hinds County and into the hands of DeLaughter, because the case had already been tried there.
On Nov. 19, 2003, DeLaughter granted Pope's order to reduce the judgment to $400,000. Kirk grimaced and swallowed the ruling, but on Nov. 25, Pope filed a motion for reconsideration and for stay of judgment, which was set for a hearing on Dec. 12, 2003.
According to the 2005 Supreme Court opinion, delivered after review of the case, DeLaughter granted Pope's order "apparently by ex parte order of the trial court, which also stayed all matters."
The Supreme Court also noted at the bottom of Page 3 of its opinion that DeLaughter and Peters concocted the court's decision outside of court. "The order stated that the judge was contacted at home by counsel for Pope and that the order was necessary, in part, to prevent Kirk from executing on the judgment."
But ex parte means the judge only gave his ear to one side of the argument—which most courts avoid doing. DeLaughter set a hearing on the motion for Dec. 12, granting Kirk time to respond to the motion, but on Dec. 9, DeLaughter delayed the Dec. 12 hearing until Feb. 6, 2004.
Then, prior to the Feb. 6, hearing, the court reported that Pope told the court that both sides were in negotiation—a claim the Supreme Court refuted, explaining "both parties (later) dispute(d) the trial court's characterization."
Further complicating matters, Pope filed a malpractice action against his former attorney, Leonard Melvin, and settled the action for $275,000 on April 20, 2005. Pope said in deposition that the majority of the settlement proceeds went to Peters and Stewart. Still, Kirk caught wind of the new money and felt Pope was ignoring an earlier order to freeze his spending of assets, and filed a motion for contempt and an injunction to freeze Pope's assets. The guy was in the middle of a lawsuit, after all.
Pope fought that motion by filing—that very same day—a Motion for Clarity, asking the court to define a December motion (which prohibited Pope from divesting any assets until the motion was heard).
The dates begin to run together at this point. On May 17, 2005, DeLaughter entered an order declaring that neither side had requested a continuance of the injunction beyond Feb. 6, 2004, and that it assumed the parties had reached a settlement. DeLaughter re-set the case for a June 17, 2005, hearing.
But then, on May 24, DeLaughter denied Pope's motion for reconsideration and stay of judgment. Despite the initial appearance of the smack-down, the decision proved to be a crucial chess move in Pope's favor later on.
On Sept. 14, 2005, Pope filed a "Motion for Relief from Judgment," asserting that Kirk was judicially halted from pursuing his claims against Pope. Pope's argument, in a nutshell, was that the court should neutralize Kirk's claim because he didn't initially tell the bankruptcy court about it.
DeLaughter's court granted Pope his motion on Oct. 17, holding the final judgment "null and void," despite Kirk having informed Eaton about the case days prior to the jury award.
Pope's lawyers would have filed the motion outside a six-month window of time, had DeLaughter not granted a motion to rehear the case in May. By doing so, DeLaughter reset the clock, assuring that Pope's motion was filed "well within the six-month time frame applicable to other provisions under Rule 60(b)," according to the Supreme Court summary.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court's judgment of dismissal in 2005 and reinstated the prior judgment. It could do little against DeLaughter's ensuing perception of favoritism, however.
Of course, Peters had been in office since the 1970s, only surrendering his position in 2001. There was plenty of time to foster ties with more people than just DeLaughter.
The Book of Shelton
Prosecutors and judges meet each other all the time. They're both paid and employed by the same government, and they probably even have lunch on occasion. But the relationship can appear overly accommodating.
According to March 13, 2007, deposition testimony from Former Hinds County Senior Assistant District Attorney Robert Taylor to the Complaint Tribunal of the Mississippi Supreme Court, Peters may have prosecuted—with a little too much bias—a case that proved beneficial to Hinds County Justice Court Judge Houston Patton.
The anonymous bloggers at http://www.folo.us a Web site of attorneys and others mesmerized by the Scruggs case—has meticulously catalogued the legal morass surrounding Peters, Patton and Jackson attorney J. Keith Shelton.
Taylor, an assistant district attorney between 1982 and 2006, testified in 2007 that a state case against Shelton may have lacked basis, but that Peters' office had maintained and pushed the case.
The story began in 1993 with a Hinds County Court squabble between James E. Jennings Jr. and his ex-wife Stacy Kenney. Jennings sued Kenney for malicious prosecution, while Kenney was filing charges against him in Hinds County Justice Court for telephone harassment. Jennings maintains in court documents that he had no knowledge of his ex's suit. Jennings won a summary judgment of $35,000 from his ex in Jennings v. Kenney, which was entered by Patton. It was too early for Jennings to pass out the party hats, however.
Though Jennings won Jennings v. Kenney, he still had no knowledge of Kenney v. Jennings, so the case was waiting for him as he had the $35,000 check virtually in hand. Justice Court Judge Clyde R. Chapman ordered Jennings jailed in 1994, after Justice Court Judge Raymond Bates tried Jennings in absentia and sentenced him to jail for contempt of court.
Jennings knew nothing of an arrest order, even as he got the letter of notification from Hinds County Justice Court informing him that trial had been set in Kenney v. Jennings. When he arrived for the trial, he was arrested and sent to the county farm.
Jennings made a desperate call to his attorney, Ed Kerstine, who got Patton to release him. Fresh out of jail, Jennings soon faced a motion from Kenney's lawyers to set aside the $35,000 judgment. Later, at the hearing on his ex's motion, a prosecutor moved to revoke Jennings' bond, and Patton went with it, refusing to let Jennings call his attorneys. So it was back to the slammer for Jennings.
According to court documents, Jennings eventually contacted attorney Jacqueline Pierce and asked her to spring him from jail and stop his ex from snatching back his $35,000, but Pierce couldn't get seem to get past Jennings' release order.
Pierce later recorded a curious March 15 conversation with Patton.
"On the morning of March 15, 1994, around 9 a.m., I saw Judge Patton in the foyer of the Hinds County Courthouse, and I asked him, 'Judge, what would it take to get James Jennings out of jail?' He replied, 'Get that agreement (for Jennings to give up his judgement of $35,000) signed.' I told him that the agreement (to give up the $35,000) was illegal. He turned to someone else and began talking. It was absolutely clear to me that in order for Jennings to be released he had to give up the $35,000 judgment," Pierce testified in a 2007 petition to reinstate Shelton's law license.
Patton did not return calls from the Jackson Free Press.
Pierce later wrote a memorandum describing the encounter and Jennings' old lawyer wrote an agreement for Jennings to relinquish the money. After a fuss, Jennings eventually signed it, and was released immediately.
Feeling Patton had violated his civil rights, Jennings filed a Jan. 27, 1997, complaint against Patton with the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, and pulled in attorney Shelton to argue his case.
On March 26, 1997, Patton told Shelton he was interested in working a settlement deal to the civil complaint. Shelton would later testify that Patton said he was qualified to handle the deal himself and needed no attorney to represent him. The judge seemingly wanted Jennings' claims to vanish as quickly as possible, with only a minimum of spare ears listening in.
Jennings wanted $25,000 to settle, and Patton agreed to pay $5,000 up front, with the rest to come later if Jennings would drop his complaint.
Indicting on a Dare?
Patton, Jennings and Shelton met at a McDonald's restaurant on Metro Circle in West Jackson to complete the deal. Patton, who was wearing a wire handed over $5,000 and his signature on a promissory note, a release agreement and an order reinstating Jennings' judgment, and got out of the car. Police arrested Shelton and Jennings after Patton departed. Both Shelton and Jennings were indicted in August 1997 for conspiracy to commit bribery and bribery.
Taylor, the attorney-in-charge who dismissed the case in 2005, testified in 2007 that the state's case against Shelton had little basis. Taylor admitted in his testimony that Patton had upset the state's case by deviating from the script he was supposed to be working from while wired.
Taylor also wrote a one-page memorandum for the petition for reinstatement criticizing the indictments, saying the suspects had not incriminated themselves enough in the bugged conversation, and that other people in the district attorney's office had agreed with this assessment at the time.
"Everyone who reviewed the case [including Ed Peters and Mayfield] at that time agreed there was now no case against either Shelton or Jennings," Taylor wrote, and expressed surprise that the case was nevertheless brought before a grand jury. "This case lacks, and never has had any prosecutive merit," added."
Taylor went so far as to speculate in a deposition (on the petition to reinstate Shelton's law license before the Mississippi Supreme Court) that Peters continued to prosecute the unsound case on a bluff, waving it like a club before Jennings to intimidate him into pulling his complaint against Patton.
"Another possibility is that Shelton and Jennings were indicted on a dare. That was on occasion done during the tenure of the previous District Attorney Ed Peters. The only trouble was that in the end, the defendant called our bluff," Taylor wrote.
"I've always had personal problems with … [indicting] a case that I know deep in my heart if I have to go to trial I can't win it. That was OK with Peters, he was willing to have his people indict on a dare," Taylor testified.
Ridgeland attorney Andrew Kilpatrick, who is representing Shelton in his petition for reinstatement before the Mississippi Supreme Court, would not comment on whether or not he felt Peters was deliberately looking out for Patton, saying he would let Taylor's testimony in the case do the talking.
But Kilpatrick did point out that the relevant issue of the USC Section 1983 violation of due process claim Jennings had filed against Patton had never reached Taylor back in 1997. Taylor testified last year that no one from law enforcement or the DA's office had told him that Shelton had specifically addressed Patton with the lawsuit.
The information might have further undercut the prosecution's case. Kilpatrick wonders why it never came up, despite being clearly referred to in recorded conversations between Patton and Shelton.
"That's another thing," Kilpatrick told the Jackson Free Press. "They tape-recorded two telephone conversations, in which they discussed the settlement agreement. In fact, (Shelton) is telling Patton in the conversations that he can't dismiss the complaint. … But no one (in the district attorney's office) ever brought up the idea of looking at those tape recordings. In Taylor's deposition I asked him if anybody had read the transcripts containing the settlement of the 1983 actions. He says, 'I hope they did. I don't know.'"
The Mississippi Bar reversed its findings regarding suspending Shelton's license last December, and has submitted a request to the State Supreme Court to reinstate the license, though the court has yet to respond to the bar's request.
Former District Attorney Ed Peters could not be reached for this story. His usual number has been disconnected, and the secretary at his most recent firm, Davidson & Bowie, said that he has left with no forwarding number.
The Jackson Free Press will continue offer all people mentioned in this story, and others connected to these cases, a chance to tell their side of the story.
Additional research by Matt Saldaña and Donna Ladd. Brian Johnson assisted with reporting of the Jackson Free Press' Jeffrey Middleton story, now quoted in court documents.
Kudos to Adam and Donna for bringing this out in print!
No problem. The Hinds County angle needed to be fleshed out in one article. At least as a starting point. It's hard to get people to talk on this for obvious reasons, but there sure is a pile of legal documents. Of course, Adam did the heavy lifting here. And thanks to Matt Saldaña for helping us sort through them from a distance.
I will say one thing: There is a certain gullibility in and around Jackson that is coming home to roost, it seems. It's very sad to watch something seemingly so long in the making unfold before our eyes. There is a huge lesson here about the need for a questioning media, if nothing else.
Update on the Wilson part of this story. And an interesting profile of Scruggs in The American Lawyer.
Yes, it is time to clean house in Hinds Co.!
jfp doesn't need to stop with hinds county. I find it strange that the gov knows what the supreme court is going to do before they do it. Wonder how he knows. Also my understanding that one of the supremes sons was convicted of drug offense in Starkville and that some of the supremes wrote letters to the judge and nothing has been said in any paper about this. I do understand that the judge gave him substantial time but somewhat less than what most others have been getting. Also great article previously on the overturning of plaintiff's verdicts by supreme but dissappointed that no further articles about how the contributions from big businesses to some of these judges may have affected their decisions
The jfp may not have the time to track this much outside Hinds County. It's one of those stories that will unfold with or without us now that the feds are all over it. It's a better use of our resources to investigate stories that the feds aren't dug into (and it's nearly impossible to interview people involved in cases that involve federal indictments). So it doesn't make sense for us to function merely as a link aggregator to court documents; a lot of blogs are doing that on Scruggs. Our resources are needed elsewhere (like on the innocence beat to try to help get more innocent people out of Mississippi prisons). That said, we are always open to story tips about these cases, especially angles that have not been reported to death, or at all.
ladd, i understand what you are saying, however since what the supreme court does affects the innocent and jackson. I don't know if you know or not but the supremes found that a trial judge had committed error by allowing a confesion in only to say that it was harmless and upheld a conviction. Don't know about you but if i am on a jury and hear a confession it is over for the defendant. He may well be guilty but i fail to see how a confession can be harmless error.
While I think the investigative work and stories by JFP and Lynch, in general, are fantastic, this one part of the beginning of the article just wouldn't get out of my head as I read the rest of the story. Because what happened to Middleton feeds directly into the Peters/Delaughter tango, I find myself wondering what any of this really means. Then coming back to the Middleton story later in the article, I had even more questions. "Knowing there was no room for either fight or denial, Middleton pled guilty to manslaughter, but then the policeman got a cushy deal from the state that, like Harris, he probably didn’t see coming... DeLaughter virtually erased the plea by placing Middleton on probation for two years and withholding adjudication. In short, he refused to prosecute Middleton or put him before a jury that might not be so understanding. DeLaughter’s decision took away the possibility of another trial, with a different jury, with a different judge. Middleton was getting probation for wrongfully running a light and killing a man. Enraged, Peterson howled, refusing to sign off on the court’s decision not to prosecute." While I don't know the specifics of this particular case, I can speak to the fact that Middleton's plea stood, but it sounds like Delaughter simply didn't follow the prosecutor's recommended sentence and instead substituted his own, something perfectly okay in our system of criminal justice. What bothers me about the quoted portion is that the case was prosecuted, a plea of guilty entered and as part of the plea, the judge agreed to allow the charge to be non-adjudicated. I'd say that's probably not at all unlikely or unusual when dealing with officers or similar types of government officials all across the state. I'd say Peterson was simply unhappy with the sentence the judge imposed, or rather didn't impose, but this was not a case that wasn't prosecuted. Further, no jury would hear the case once the plea was entered. So to think that this was somethign that was kept out of court and away from a jury is not legally accurate. Ms. Peterson did prosecute it, she accepted a plea. From that point forward, her input is merely suggestive and the judge didn't have to follow it. This was a case that was very serious and the "killer" did get off light, for sure, but as an attorney, I've seen judges excuse all kinds of conduct by law enforcement, both on the job and off. This doesn't make it right and it doesn't obviate any potential impact by Peters, but it does show that Peterson wasn't the innocent bystander this story makes it seem like. She could've chosen to not offer any plea agreement, or not accept a plea and to prosecute this case. While DA's normally want plea agreements because it makes their job so much easier, not having to go to trial and prove their case, once they agree to a plea, it's really up to the judge how to sentence a person. To me, it just seems like she got mad because the judge didn't do what she expected -- she wasn't prepared for the outcome of her plea agreement. I don't agree with letting Middleton off so easily, but I don't think it's correct to say that he wasn't prosecuted and that Delaughter decided not to prosecute. Peterson decided not to prosecute by offering and accepting a plea by Middleton -- she just got hoodwinked on the sentence phase, which is all within the judge's discretion. Certainly Peterson could have been influential on this point, where the judge had the discretion to handle how he sentenced Middleton once he pled guilty. This simply points to a need for more uniform sentencing guidelines and better procedural rules. Just as a judge can go light on someone, so too, can they go hard on someone they don't favor, such as some of the entirely excessive sentences being handed down on non-violent offenses in this state. In either case, you can bet that when it comes to judges and discretion, they are influenced by something, be it others in their family, friends, experiences or just plain biases for or against people.
kbennett, I'm not the expert on this case, but as I understand it, the question was *why* this case suddenly turned and became so easy on Middleton. You can talk all you want about what the prosecutor did, and the intricacies of the law that would allow a judge to make this kind of decision, but that doesn't get us past the basic question at hand, which is the same one being brought up in other court cases as it refers to this case. I know it's important for many people to believe that Faye Peterson did nothing right as district attorney, but I would suggest that you stay focused here on what really matters at this point: a sitting judge.
The WAPT news ticker says that Scruggs plead guilty to a federal judiciary bribery charge, according to the AP.
WAPT link The surprise plea came Friday during a hearing in Oxford on pretrial matters in advance of his scheduled March 31 trial. Scruggs and co-defendant Sidney Backstrom both pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe a judge. No plea has yet been entered by Scruggs' son, Zach, who recently sought to have his case separated from his father's.