John Grisham had a phone interview with WSJ’s Paulo Prada where he gave his input on the Dickie Scruggs case and the Mississippi lawyer scene.
Famed plaintiffs lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs and four others are charged with conspiring to give $40,000 to a state court judge. The alleged bribe was to gain a favorable ruling in a case concerning the divvying up of $26.5 million in legal fees from Katrina-related litigation involving Scruggs’s firm.
What do you make of the indictment of Dickie Scruggs?
My initial reaction was one of surprise. I know Dickie Scruggs. This doesn’t sound like the Dickie Scruggs that I know. I was really shocked by the news. When you know Dickie and how successful he has been you could not believe he would be involved in such a boneheaded bribery scam that is not in the least bit sophisticated. I don’t believe it. I hope it’s all proven to be wrong.
It’s a big story.
Well, because of his willingness to take on big cases he has become noted, famous, and successful as a trial lawyer and never shied away from politics. You add that together and you become a big target and people like to see a big target go down.
What do you think of the charges in the indictment?
I know what the basic allegations are. I read the indictment. As a former criminal defense lawyer, I started thinking about how I would defend it and started looking for gaps and holes.
Did you find any?
It’s only one side of what happened. There’s a whole lot more to the story. One thing is that there are a lot of recorded statements in the indictment but none from Dickie. There are no allegations that he delivered cash or was part of it.
But the prosecution must have evidence that is not reflected in the indictment, too.
I was in law school with Jim Greenlee (the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Mississippi, the prosecutor who brought the case against Mr. Scruggs.) He’s a man of integrity and a good prosecutor and he’s not going to reveal everything. Jim and I started and finished law school together and practiced in the same small town (Southaven, MS).
He’s a good, steady prosecutor, but I also anticipate a very vigorous defense.
The trial will be closely watched.
In a situation like this I’m always reminded how quickly we abandon the presumption of innocence. There’s always such a rush to judgment. It makes a fair trial hard to get.
It’s amazing how many people involved here know one another — on both sides of this case, and in the tobacco and Katrina litigation that has made Mississippi lawyers known nationally.
Mississippi is a small place. I can’t say I anticipated a lot of what has happened in the last 15 years. And Dickie was in the middle of a lot of it. It’s a small state and because of that he (and others) have been in all these big cases and lawyers have made a lot of money.
What is it about Oxford and lawyers? You walk around the square here and you see law offices everywhere.
I don’t think it’s anything unique to Oxford. The plaintiff bar around Oxford was tame. The action was on the Gulf Coast. That’s where Dickie (and others) became very successful. Because they were successful they were able to pursue big, mass litigation. Yeah, there are a lot of guys there on the square, it seems like there are thousands of them. But anywhere you have a federal court and on top of that a university with a law school, that would happen.
Was Dickie Scruggs a model for the protagonist in “King of Torts”?
Absolutely not. I’ve seen that mentioned in newspaper articles and it’s simply not true. There was “King of Torts” and “The Summons” and both of those had a flamboyant character… But I try to stay away from people (in my books), especially people I know and admire. I’m not going to make fun of somebody I know because there are too many people that I don’t know who are too much fun.
You now live in Virginia, but called Oxford home for a long time. Oxford is a writers’ town, haunted by the ghost of William Faulkner. What do you say to people who criticize your books for not being serious literature?
I couldn’t care less. I learned that lesson a long time ago. When you write popular fiction you’re going to get bashed by critics. I can’t change overnight into a serious literary author. You can’t compare apples to oranges. William Faulkner was a great literary genius. I am not.