Civil Rights Hero Caught in Corruption Probe to Begin Serving Sentence

Wayne Drash, CNN, Jan. 4, 2010

Bobby DeLaughter–the prosecutor who secured the conviction in the infamous Medgar Evers Mississippi murder case–is himself now headed to prison.

It was DeLaughter’s dogged 1994 prosecution and the subsequent conviction of Ku Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith that helped trigger the reopening of dozens of civil rights cold cases.

DeLaughter became an instant hero of the civil rights movement. Alec Baldwin portrayed him in the 1996 movie, “Ghosts of Mississippi,” and his closing statement was once dubbed one of the greatest closing arguments in modern law.

“Is it ever too late to do the right thing?” DeLaughter told the jury of eight blacks and four whites. “For the sake of justice and the hope of us as a civilized society, I sincerely hope and pray that it’s not.”

DeLaughter would go on to become a state judge in 2002. His years in the robe came to an end in 2009, when DeLaughter pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for lying to an FBI agent in a far-reaching corruption probe that has rocked Mississippi’s judicial system.

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DeLaughter is to begin serving his 18-month prison sentence today at a facility in Kentucky.

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The story of DeLaughter going from civil rights hero to convicted felon is complicated, involving years of contentious litigation in his courtroom.

At the heart of the case is Dickie Scruggs, a high-powered lawyer who made tens of millions of dollars in tobacco and asbestos litigation. Scruggs is the brother-in-law of former Sen. Trent Lott and is now serving seven years in prison for trying to influence Mississippi judges, including DeLaughter.

According to prosecutors, Scruggs wanted to get to DeLaughter through his mentor, Peters, to try to influence DeLaughter’s ruling in a high stakes case, potentially worth $15 million. Peters received $1 million in illicit payments as compensation for his actions, prosecutors say. Peters was granted immunity in exchange for his cooperation.

“Mississippi would like to shake its image of being tied to civil rights crimes and the good ole boy network, and we see these two things overlap here,” Steffey said.

“It’s enormously unfortunate for a person like Judge DeLaughter who, at the very least, accomplished heroic things with bringing Byron De La Beckwith to justice. And it’s tragic for the people of Mississippi–that the end story here is that he is a corrupt judge in prison.”

DeLaughter has denied taking any money in the case or that he was improperly influenced. In his guilty plea, he admits to only obstruction of justice; the more serious charges of involvement in a bribery scheme and mail fraud conspiracy were dismissed as part of the deal.

“To me, he is a tragic figure because he had a good career and he threw it away,” said attorney Bill Kirksey. “He became an embarrassment to the legal community, to the judicial community and, I would hope, to himself.”

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Morris Dees, the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, represented Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers–the NAACP leader who was gunned down in his driveway on June 12, 1963.

He says only one man had the guts to seek prosecution in the case when two previous trials years before ended without convictions.

“If Bobby DeLaughter hadn’t been around, it would never have happened. I can guarantee you that,” Dees said. “It was the first modern-day prosecution of one of these old civil rights-era murders, and it resulted in the prosecution and convictions of a large number later.”

DeLaughter’s bravery in seeking justice in the Evers case, Dees said, makes it tough to swallow his more recent failings as a judge. “Certainly, when a judge is put in prison and pleads guilty,” Dees said, “it certainly tarnishes his legal and judicial reputation.”

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