In today’s Clarion Ledger, Ed Peters’ grand jury testimony was discussed. Peters was the long time Hinds County District Attorney whose office prosecuted all felony crimes in the county. After retiring as a prosecutor, Peters then went into private practice. He was hired by Dickie Scruggs who had a case pending in front of Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter, a former long time assistant under Peters. (Peters and DeLaughter are in the picture to the left).
According to Peters’ sworn testimony, he visited privately with DeLaughter on several occasions to discuss Scruggs’ ongoing case. Peters was trying to influence DeLaughter to find in favor of Scruggs. This type of communication with a judge, known as ex parte communication, is prohibited by court rules. Peters also testified that DeLaughter longed to be a federal judge and that former Senator Trent Lott called DeLaughter to tell him his brother-in-law Scruggs had suggested his name for a federal judge position. Even thought DeLaughter didn’t get the position, he was advised that Scruggs had put his name up for consideration.
We all know the rest of the story. Scruggs and his attorneys were caught up in this judicial bribery case as well as one in LaFayette County. Several lawyers and one judge (DeLaughter) plead guilty and were sent to prison. Of course, Peters somehow avoided a conviction by cutting a deal to testify against the others, including DeLaughter, with whom he said he had a “father son relationship”. Gee, thanks Dad.
I started practicing in 1994 at a time when both Peters and DeLaughter were two of the top dog prosecutors in the state. I tried my first murder case against DeLaughter in February 1995 (my client was convicted of a lesser included offense). Both Peters and DeLaughter prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith, a case which my partner Merrida Coxwell was appointed by the court to defend Beckwith. Merrida also had several other high profile cases against Peters and DeLaughter over the years. Peters and DeLaughter seemingly had a habit of hiding favorable evidence which should have been turned over to the defendants. Most of the cases were overturned for these discovery violations on appeal with Beckwith being the notable exception. (Let’s face it, no elected judge was going to vote to overturn Beckwith’s conviction). The Mississippi Supreme Court even scolded Peters’ office for repeated discovery violations.
When the Scruggs bribery scandal broke out, my mind immediately began to think that this is not the first time this has happened in Hinds County. How many other cases, civil and criminal, have been compromised? We know that Peters and DeLaughter have been accused of running a similar scam in the Eaton v. Frisby case in which it was claimed that Eaton hired Peters to influence DeLaughter. How many other cases were there? How many criminal defendants have been denied a fair trial by similar tactics? Did Peters and/or DeLaughter have similar ex parte communications with judges when they were prosecutors? Well, we’ll probably never know because the investigation into these shady tactics went no further. It’s as if no one really wanted to know.
But the real question is why not ask these questions? Our justice system, both civil and criminal, depends on fairness. Each party is entitled to a fair trial before a fair and impartial judge. We read in the paper all the time that death row inmates and other prisoners complain that they “didn’t get a fair trial”. Well, if they were prosecuted in Hinds County they may have a valid point. I don’t think Ed Peters and Bobby DeLaughter simply became “unethical” when they left the Hinds County District Attorney’s office.
I am waiting for one of these long convicted inmates to raise a post conviction relief claim asserting that Peters and/or DeLaughter deprived them of a fair trial. I hope that individual is permitted to conduct discovery and ask Messrs. Peters and DeLaughter (and others) under oath whether they discussed the case with any judges ex parte or did anything else improper. I don’t expect Peters and DeLaughter to open up and sing like a bird but I do think that people will become very uncomfortable and could lead to many cases being overturned.
Chuck Mullins celebrated his 17th year practicing law in September 2011, and no one even sent him a card. To read more about Chuck and Coxwell & Associates, go to their webpage.
Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.