Retired federal prosecutor John Hailman’s book “From Midnight to Guntown” is a page-turning, tell-all of some of the U.S. Attorney Office’s best-known as well as obscure cases in North Mississippi from bank robbers to corrupt supervisors.
With twisty plots and colorful characters reminiscent of a John Grisham thriller, Hailman offers a candid and captivating perspective on 30 years of federal cases including the so-called “Cattlegate” beef plant scandal and the downfall of billionaire trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs.
Also a longtime wine and travel columnist for the Gannett News Service, Hailman’s 2009 book “Thomas Jefferson On Wine” was released to rave reviews. A native of Indiana, Hailman earned an undergraduate degree from Millsaps College, a masters from Tulane University and a law degree from the University of Mississippi.
Hailman and his wife, Regan, live in Oxford where he is an adjunct law professor at the University of Mississippi and fellow with the Overby Center.
Tell us about the title of your book.
The title of the book is meant to portray our twin cultures, with Guntown standing for the green, rolling foothills of Appalachia, which run to Oxford, and Midnight representing the flat, dramatic Delta with its unique culture.
Is there anything that sets the Northern District apart from other districts? Did it pose unique challenges working on various cases?
The Northern District is indeed unique. The Southern District (everything south of U.S. 82) seemed to get all the good parts: the Gulf Coast, the state capital, the internationally famous old antebellum towns like Natchez and Vicksburg. But we get Elvis and Faulkner and Grisham and both the Delta and the hill country… the blues, Parchman Farm, Highway 61 and the casinos of Tunica — a real magnet for free-spending criminals.
During your college years, you studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and later worked as legal counsel and speechwriter for U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, work that included finding and prosecuting three men for shooting Stennis in a mugging in 1973. How was all of this formative in your career?
While studying in Paris, I cut most of my boring classes and watched criminal trials at the Sorbonne and at the Old Bailey in London. After law school, I clerked for two years for Judge William C. Keady in Greenville then spent a year in Washington as a defense attorney at Georgetown University then two years with Sen. Stennis.
I don’t recall any victim in my career who was more angry and hungry for justice than Sen. Stennis when he was shot and suffering horrible pain during his months in the hospital. The military surgeon at Walter Reed told us there was no way he would survive but after 10 days he was still living. Stennis called me into his hospital room and he said he wanted me to work every day with the FBI and U.S. attorneys going after the shooter.
A Washington, D.C., sanitation worker reported to police that he had seen an argument between a man and woman and that the woman said the man had shot Stennis. What happened next?
The police did a neighborhood investigation and got a bunch of witnesses who said the three defendants had admitted to it, that they had shot and robbed the senator. The driver of the car who also provided the gun… we had to give him immunity to testify against the others. The prosecutors convicted him of two or three other robberies and sent him away for a long time. The one who held the senator down got 15 years and then they tried Tyrone Marshall the shooter and he plead guilty and got 15 years.
Talk about some of your work against public corruption. What were some of the notable (or less notable) names or cases that you worked on?
My favorite one was my first one, a RICO case against the sheriff at Hernando, who was not just shaking down every honky-tonk and gambling den in the county, but all the “spas” or massage parlors and drug dealers, as well.
Wayne Tichenor and I ran in an undercover agent posing as an organized crime capo from Oklahoma to partner up with the sheriff. The cast of characters was classic. The lawyers were nearly as colorful as the crooks. We convicted them all, then got them again for trying to tamper with the jury, including an unsuccessful attempt to elicit the help of Sen.”Big Jim” Eastland, who helped us instead.
Our most publicized case was a statewide FBI undercover sting against corrupt county supervisors where we convicted five dozen of them plus several crooked salesmen who were kicking back to them on “sales” for products that never even existed.
Tell us about your work with Judge Henry Lackey on the Dickie Scruggs case.
Working with Henry was easily the best part of the Scruggs case. It was a sad case to me because I not only liked Dickie but had taught his son, Zach, in trial practice, which includes ethics.
Knowing my prior cases in the corruption area, Henry came to me first with the case, right after Tim Balducci had offered him a job. Henry was the hero hands down. The last thing he ever wanted to do was get his friend and protege Balducci in trouble, but Tim dug his own grave. It took a lot of courage for Henry, sporting both a pacemaker and an implanted defibrillator, to do some of the most sensitive undercover work I ever saw.
The plea agreements prosecutor, Tom Dawson, struck with Joey Langston and Ed Peters sealed the case, giving Scruggs a second conviction, which inoculated the whole case against claims of politics.
Any comment about work during the last decade on so-called “innocence projects,” wrongfully-convicted cases that are sometimes overturned?
Thanks to financing by John Grisham and staffing by the Ole Miss law school our Mississippi project has taken only good cases and not gone off on any hysterical anti-prosecution witch-hunts. Mississippi, in my opinion, has fewer innocent people behind bars than some larger states like Texas and California, where the numbers are so great people can get lost in the system. If I had a wish, however, it would be for a “guilt project” funded as well as the innocence one, but I suppose such a thing does exist already in the form of “cold case” work.
Tell us about your civil rights-related casework like reopening the Emmett Till murder case?
We reopened it and the FBI investigated. We never knew how he died but when they exhumed the body they found shotgun pellets all within his skull. What had to have happened was they shot him with a pistol (that we recovered) using a shotgun shell. We hoped we might prosecute the wife of one of the suspects but there was no transcript and they did not identify her as helping in the kidnapping.
What was the worst day of your career?
Probably the Christmas morning when the FBI called to tell me a nine-year-old boy had been killed, after visiting his grandparents, by the man they called the Natchez Trace Sniper. Convicting the killer was a solace to the mother but could never replace him.
What was the best?
The day I retired, not because I would not miss the courtroom and the camaraderie, which I still miss terribly, but because I was so happy about the career I’d chosen and all the friends I’d made along the way.
Do you plan on writing any future books?
This fall the University Press is publishing “The Search For Good Wine,” a compilation of columns I wrote on wine, food and travel. I’ve already finished volume two of the Guntown trilogy, entitled “Return to Guntown,” which features drug kingpins and moonshine whiskey. The third volume, if I live to finish it, will be “Far From Guntown: Foreign Missions Of A Federal Prosecutor from Moscow to Morocco And Beyond.”
Who were some personal heroes in the federal system that worked alongside you on different cases?
My number-one mentor was always my father H.L. Hailman, a tough Amish German who always gave me sound advice and lots of freedom. He hated lawyers, having dealt with a lot of them, but loved prosecutors. The FBI agent to whom I dedicate the book, Wayne Tichenor from Memphis, was trained by John Proctor, the FBI agent played by Gene Hackman in the movie “Mississippi Burning.” Also, U.S. attorneys Al Moreton and H.M. Ray and Judge Neal Biggers were especially good role models.
Eudora Welty taught you how to write at Millsaps College. What was she like?
Very soft-spoken. She believed in reading stories aloud and she’d read her stories and have us read our stories. We’d go to her house and sit around on the kitchen floor drinking beer and telling stories.
What’s your favorite meal/restaurant in Oxford?
My wife, who had a catering business for a dozen years makes the best meals. For dining out I like Big Bad Breakfast. One restaurant tip for those who miss the old Ruby Chinese… their chef is now at Two Stick and on Sunday evenings will custom-cook for you from the old Ruby’s Chinese menu. My favorite is Yu Hsiang pork.