The Fall of the House of ZeusAuthor Wilkie simply ‘here to tell a story’

Published 1:08 am Saturday, May 7, 2011

The story of the fall of Mississippi lawyer Dickie Scruggs has no heroes, writer Curtis Wilkie believes.

Wilkie, 70, formerly a 25-year reporter with The Boston Globe and current Overby Fellow and Kelly G. Cook Chair of Journalism at the University of Mississippi, spent more than two years researching and writing Scruggs’ story.

He talked about his book, “The Fall of the House of Zeus,” to a Vicksburg civic club Thursday.

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“There is no special moral to be drawn,” Wilkie said. “Like I tell my students, I’m here to tell a story, not preach a sermon. It’s an ugly story, a sad story, but ultimately it’s a very human story with a lot of drama to it.”

Scruggs, the enormously successful and wealthy tobacco and asbestos litigator who won billions in settlements during the 1990s as well as insurance cases after Hurricane Katrina, pleaded guilty to attempted bribery in 2008 and 2009 and was sentenced to five- and seven-year sentences, to be served concurrently.

His initial indictment in November 2007 “astonished” Wilkie, he told the group. A second indictment followed in 2009.

Also indicted was his son, Zach Scruggs, several of their colleagues, including former state Auditor Steve Patterson and eventually former Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter. All went to prison.

Wilkie wrote his book with Dickie Scruggs’ cooperation. The two have exchanged e-mails during Scruggs’ imprisonment, and besides case documents Wilkie also had access to a complete set of discs containing recorded conversations that prosecutors used to build their case.

There is no doubt about Scruggs’ guilt, he said, but the discs suggest ethical lapses.

“It raises a real question of whether there was entrapment,” Wilkie said. “One wonders about some of the measures that federal prosecutors took to basically reel these people in.”

The case, detailed in “The Fall of the House of Zeus,” involved staggering sums of money and levels of hatred among Scruggs and a number of attorneys with whom he had worked, Wilkie said.

Scruggs has served about three years at the Federal Corrections Institute at Ashland, Ky., and of the seven co-defendants, he is the only one still in prison, Wilkie said.

Zach Scruggs has filed suit to have his guilty plea vacated and his conviction overturned, Wilkie said. The younger Scruggs wants the restoration of his rights as a citizen that overturning his conviction would bring.

“The Fall of the House of Zeus” was published about six months ago and is in its seventh printing, Wilkie told the group. Movie rights have also been sold.

Wilkie is an Ole Miss graduate who early in his career covered the civil rights movement in Greenwood.