Judicial Bribery Fallout Reveals Mississippi Manslaughter Case Implications

March 18, 2008

Katie South knew something wasn’t right.

Her husband, Joe, has been dead for almost three years. The man charged with his death will go on trial Monday in Holly Springs after a judge this week declined to approve another continuance.

“I’ve been fighting every day for three years. I’m emotionally and physically drained,” Katie South said about the previous delays.

Joe South was killed on Feb. 4, 2005, while driving to work at Dolco Packaging in Memphis from his home in Abbeville.

According to court records, South was traveling north on Mississippi Highway 7 a mile north of Waterford when a car, driven by Darron Lee Minor, slammed into him. Minor was traveling south on Highway 7, but for unknown reasons, lost control of his vehicle and crossed over the center line into South’s path, killing him, court records showed.

Minor, nephew to Northern District Transportation Commissioner Bill Minor, was charged with aggravated DUI in January 2006.

The Langston Law Firm of Booneville was hired by Minor’s father for $30,000 to defend him, according to court records. The attorney on the case, Timothy Balducci left the firm, led by attorney Joey Langston, shortly after and took the case with him.

Balducci was arrested in November for his role in a scheme to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey with $40,000 for a favorable ruling in a lawsuit involving attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs. Balducci has pleaded guilty and has worked with federal prosecutors in their case against Scruggs, who was also indicted.

Scruggs’ son, Zach, attorney Sydney Backstrom and former State Auditor Steve Patterson were also charged in the case. Scruggs and Backstrom pleaded guilty in federal court Friday. Patterson has also pleaded guilty to the charge. Zach Scruggs’ trial remains scheduled for March 31 in Oxford.

In December, Langston was indicted for bribing Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter in an unrelated case. He has pleaded guilty to the charge and is also awaiting sentence.

The investigation was sparked when Lackey was approached last March by Balducci, who asked Lackey to rule in Scruggs’ favor during the civil lawsuit that involves $26 million in legal fees over Hurricane Katrina litigation.

Lackey contacted the FBI, and for several months, Lackey’s phone and office were tapped to try to gain evidence against Balducci and the others.

The taped conversations have recently been made public.

It was within those transcripts that South found part of her answer why her husband’s accused killer had not gone to trial in November.

South said her niece found the transcripts on the Internet. South read over the section of transcripts her niece sent to her.

“It was like a dream,” South said. “My niece kept asking me if I was all right.”

The conversation was recorded on Nov. 1 _ the day Balducci allegedly dropped off the final payment to Lackey and was later arrested by the FBI. During their conversation, Balducci brings up the case against Minor.

Balducci: “This one, this one’s kinda tailor made … for, for, for this sort of deal.”

He explains the relationship between Minor and his uncle.

“Big politicos. Got money. You know? Been around for a while … Darron Minor, Bill’s nephew, is just a habitual (expletive). I mean just, there’s no other way to say it … Just drugs, alcohol I mean just a … been involved you know, never been arrested for felony, but has had just all kinds of damn DUIs and simple possession of marijuana.

“Darron is involved in a vehicular manslaughter … gets indicted for it … Early one morning, bad, heavy fog, he’s going down the road and he crosses over the center line, hits a man head on and causes a collision. Then another car trailin’ ’em rams in from the rear and hits that car. OK? Man died. OK?”

Balducci goes on to describe how the Mississippi Highway Patrol officer working the wreck orders a blood test on Minor, but unfortunately, he ordered it under an old statute that was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The test, according to Balducci, was positive for amphetamines and methamphetamine.

Balducci: “I mean, our guy’s tanked up. But the DA’s office has conceded that that’s an illegal test, OK, that they can’t use that as basis of his prosecution.”

Minor was apparently hurt in the wreck and while being treated at the hospital, was given a urine test that came back positive for methamphetamine. A year after the wreck, he was indicted.

On the transcript, Balducci and Lackey discuss how the second test could be considered privileged since the urine was gathered while being cared for medically without permission and that Balducci plans to ask the court to dismiss the charge against Minor.

Balducci said Minor’s family paid Langston $30,000 for his firm to represent Minor, but Balducci said that when he left the firm, the $30,000 was not paid to him. He told Lackey he planned on going back to Minor’s family and asking for another $20,000 since he never got paid by Langston.

He offers Lackey $10,000 to rule in his favor.

Balducci: “I think I’ve got a good theory. I think I can get the legs cut out of this beforehand, gimme twenty grand to do it, and if he does, then I thought me and you could split it and we could, you know, we could get it taken care of.”

Lackey, knowing he’s being taped, agrees. Balducci asks Lackey to continue the case for him in November.

Balducci: “We’d put it off ’til February and then I’ll file a motion to quash in the meantime after I get paid.”

The case was continued, but District Attorney Ben Creekmore said it wasn’t because Lackey did what Balducci requested. Creekmore said Judge Andrew Howorth continued the trial in November until March 17.

“I thought Balducci had good arguments, obviously, because I granted the continuance,” Howorth said this week in denying another continuance. “But now I see that a lot of that was a ruse to get out of the case because he knew he was going down.”

Since Balducci was arrested a few days after the conversation, Minor was without representation and a new lawyer had to be appointed. Attorney Casey Lott entered an appearance for Minor but pulled out. Attorney David Hill took over as defense attorney about two weeks ago, Creekmore said.

“It’s a shame this case has taken so long to come to trial,” Creekmore said.

Creekmore denied that the attempted bribery by Balducci caused any of the previous delays in Minor’s trial.

“To say that the Scruggs case delayed this trial would be fair but only from the November trial date until the March date,” Creekmore said. “But this story is about what Darron has done. And he’s going to be tried on that.”

South said she won’t believe it until she sees it.

“It’s gone on too long. It’s to the point of ridiculousness and Joe’s still dead.

“The longer it’s put off, the less people remember. I’ve got to fight and no one will listen. It’s been three years of torment. It’s not just the fact your husband was killed for no reason, it’s that everyone fighting me every step of the way to bring him justice,” she said.

Information from: Oxford Eagle, http://www.oxfordeagle.com

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