OXFORD, Miss. (AP) – Outside Mississippi’s 3rd Judicial District, Henry Lackey is best known as the judge whose integrity and intrepidness led to the downfall of famed trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs and several colleagues.
In his hometown of Calhoun City, they knew him first as one of their own.
“He’s sort of a fixture for our community,” said Hal Reese, an insurance agent who’s known Lackey since childhood. “I wish there were more like him.”
Lackey announced last month that he would not run for re-election as circuit judge. At age 75 and having just undergone treatment for a heart arrhythmia, he is considering retiring even before the end of the year.
Whenever he steps down, he will be remembered far and wide for his honesty, a trait he credits to his Calhoun City upbringing.
“My dad and my mother both were Christian people,” he said. “There wasn’t any question when we waked up on Sunday morning whether we were going to church or not. We just started getting ready.”
His folks ran a Ben Franklin five-and-dime in their hometown, and at least a half-dozen aunts and uncles ran other stores there.
“If we got out of line, everybody in town knew who we were and would report,” he said. Once, he and some friends stole a watermelon, taking great pains not to leave incriminating evidence.
“They had a friend that had two toes that kind of grew together,” said Reese, who was several years younger and therefore not in the group. “When they went into the watermelon patch, they wouldn’t let that friend go in, because everybody knew his footprint.”
Still, hometown eyes knew what happened and reported it to Lackey’s parents. The forced confession to the neighbor whose patch was raided was worse than any physical punishment could have been.
“That was the worst whipping I ever had to take,” he said, “but it cured me.”
There was another incident that detailed the connectedness of his small town.
Lackey and colleagues climbed through a window to play basketball in the high school gym one weekend, contrary to school rules. Monday morning, Durwood Harrison, the longtime principal, called all the culprits into his office to face the music.
“Years later, one of the fellows asked him, ‘How did you know that was us?’” he recalled. “And Mr. Harrison said, ‘Well, I knew your dogs, and they were waiting for you.’”
Lackey’s still an integral part of his community. He and his wife attend First Baptist Church of Calhoun City, where they first met, and he raises a big garden and gives away a mass of tomatoes every summer. He even plays upright bass in a pickin’-and-grinnin’ group that meets most Friday nights.
“I live within 300 yards of where I discovered America,” he quipped.
Lackey was 29 when he started law school. Soon after he graduated from Mississippi College, his father died, and Lackey stayed on to help his mother run their store.
“I worked there until my National Guard unit was activated in 1960 and ’61,” he said. It was a tense time in the Cold War, but his unit never left Fort Polk, La.
“It was a good experience; it got me separated from the retail business,” he said. “Shortly after that, I applied to law school and commuted back and forth from Calhoun City.”
As a self-described “country lawyer,” Lackey handled cases from divorce to criminal defense, many of which yielded drama or comedy.
In a murder case, the defendant swore he was innocent despite being pegged by witnesses.
He’d spent the evening of the murder, he said, in a hotel room with a young woman who was supposed to be on a church mission trip.
“She begged me not to use her as a witness,” Lackey said.
Luckily, police in Denver picked up a man who looked just like his client – and who was using the murder victim’s credit card.
Once Lackey was partnered with Armis Hawkins, who would go on to be chief justice of Mississippi’s Supreme Court, in the criminal defense of a rather notorious client who was determined to negotiate a lower fee.
“Judge Hawkins told him, ‘Now, I have a one-track mind,’” Lackey said. “‘Do you want me worried about keeping you out of the penitentiary, or do you want me worried about whether I’m going to get paid or not?’”
The world at large knows Henry Lackey for his role as informant in the Scruggs downfall.
A judge since 1993, he was offered a bribe by Scruggs colleague Tim Balducci to rule in favor of the Scruggs Law Firm in a case over legal fees. He sought direction from Assistant District Attorney Lon Stallings and fellow Circuit Court Judge Andrew Howorth, among others, then went to federal prosecutors and investigators. They wired Lackey for sound and coached him through further conversations to gather evidence.
Many people have speculated about the risk involved in being an informant in such a high-profile criminal matter. What many don’t realize is the more immediate risk such a stressful undertaking posed for Lackey.
“He never told me that he had both a pacemaker and a defibrillator in his chest,” said John Hailman, the now-retired federal prosecutor who orchestrated Lackey’s undercover evidence-gathering. “If I had known the state of his health, I might not have gone forward with it.”
In one conversation with Balducci, Lackey’s defibrillator triggered.
“He wasn’t scared about having a heart attack; he just didn’t want Balducci discovering that he was wired,” Hailman said.
Throughout the ordeal that would send one of the most famous lawyers in America to prison, Hailman said, Lackey “was much of a man.”
“I’ve received praise and accolades that I did not deserve,” Lackey said. “It’s like praising the sheriff for not stealing: That’s his job.”
Lackey says both bad and good came of the “Scruggs debacle,” as some have titled it.
“The tragedy is that so many good young lawyers became enamored with power and money that they lost their moral compass,” he said.
“What gives me courage is that, ultimately, the system worked. It’s not perfect, because it’s administered by man, but the system ultimately worked. This wrong was rooted out.”
Story by Errol Castens