OXFROD — A federal judge yesterday refused to throw out the 2008 conviction of attorney Zach Scruggs in a corruption case that also involved his father, well-known trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs.
Zach Scruggs pleaded guilty to knowing about — but not reporting — illegal contacts with a judge. Since his release from prison in 2010, he has insisted on his innocence and sought to get that conviction thrown out, saying he was coerced into pleading guilty.
U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers in Oxford denied the motion to vacate the conviction.
The case at issue involved an attempt to bribe a Mississippi circuit court judge. Zach Scruggs pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony for allegedly knowing about a crime and not reporting it. In attempting to get the conviction thrown out, Scruggs said he only knew of an attempt to influence the judge, not bribery.
In his filings, Scruggs noted a Supreme Court case involving former Enron chief Jeffrey Skilling, in which the high court limited the scope of the so-called honest services law, saying prosecutors can use the law only in cases where evidence shows the defendant accepted bribes or kickbacks.
“Petitioner claims that he is ‘actually innocent’ of the misprision of a felony conviction to which he pleaded guilty because he did not know about the bribe,” Biggers wrote in a long memorandum accompanying his ruling.
Biggers said Scruggs also argued that even if he did know about money paid to the judge, “he would have assumed that the payment was a gratuity and not a bribe.”
Biggers rejected the argument, along with claims by Scruggs of government coercion and ineffective assistance from his lawyer.
Biggers said that if Scruggs was so certain of his innocence he should have appealed his conviction or sentence but did not. Biggers also noted that the three-year sentence Scruggs received in the plea bargain was much less than the maximum 75 years allowed by law.
Biggers also said Scruggs could have extracted himself from the bribery scheme at any point but evidence showed he did not. He said that considering all the evidence in the case, it was likely Scruggs would have been convicted by a jury.
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