PERRY/Mississippi crime stories
Tuesday, December 31, 2013 12:00 AM
I was recently reading the Quinn Colson series by Oxford based writer Ace Atkins, stories about an Army Ranger who comes home to the fictional Jericho, Mississippi in Tibbehah County and fights corrupt politicians, drug dealers, gun runners and all sorts of shady dealings as sheriff. I recommend the Colson books (three published) and Atkins' other work has widespread praise as well. But it was at Atkins' blog I discovered a posting about former federal prosecutor John Hailman's "From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories from a Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi."
Hailman was a federal prosecutor for three decades in North Mississippi. In addition to his passion for investigating and prosecuting crimes, Hailman served a columnist for the Washington Post writing about wine, food and travel and authored the biography, "Thomas Jefferson On Wine."
In his decanter of the legal vineyards of his career, he finds a land ripe with literary characters and outlandish crimes fermented in North Mississippi. He writes in his introduction, "North Mississippi is still a unique place where one regularly encounters a diverse universe of colorful and disturbing characters, not just bungling bank robbers and psychopathic killers but humorous informants, thoughtful judges, traumatized victims, scheming bureaucrats, brilliant investigators, eloquent witnesses with second-grade educations, outraged citizens, and sleeping jurors. People here like to give each other funky nicknames like 'Cat Daddy' and 'Hard Time.' The cast of characters is easily as varied as the nineteenth-century London of Charles Dickens."
Hailman's begins his book as a young lawyer who, after clerking for federal judge William Keady, took a legal fellowship in Washington DC where his first "big city" defense victory was for a client sponsored by then Washington DC Mayor Marion Berry, also a Mississippi native. Hailman writes that Berry told him he had helped the judge get appointed so not to worry too much about the case. Hailman soon took a position as legal counsel to U.S. Senator John Stennis where he worked on impeachment procedures (for Vice President Spiro Agnew) and monitored the Watergate Hearings for Stennis.
He was also serving with Stennis when the Senator was shot in a robbery, requiring experimental surgery with at least two wounds considered "fatal" by the surgery team which trained on gunshot wounds in Vietnam. The lead doctor had conducted over 10,000 similar surgeries from 1967 to 1970 and said it would be a miracle if Stennis lived.
The seventy-two year old Senator's body resisted infection and he survived and he wanted revenge. Hailman writes, "It was deep and primordial, almost Shakespearean. I don't believe I'd ever seen anyone so furious or determined to get someone. Perhaps it was the secret of his success in politics. He played hard, and he played for keeps. To this day, after over thirty years as a prosecutor, I have yet to see any victim quite as angry as the senator was."
The investigation and trial against the three robbers involved witness protection, a garbage collector who broke the case by attempting to stop domestic abuse, jury tampering, a Scientology linked alibi and an all black jury in a case where the victim was a Southern segregationist. One of the attorneys later prosecuted would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley, Jr. and one of the prosecution witnesses had served as an expert for the Warren Commission's investigation of Lee Harvey Oswald in the Kennedy Assassination. In the end, it took a calculated plea deal to measure out a portion of justice, but Hailman presents an entertaining and historic read of the trial.
Hailman's chapters detail the stories and characters from "Bank Robbers I've Known," "Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs," and "Faraway Places with Strange Sounding Names: The Age of Terror" - with international cases including an "honorable" terrorist financing Hamas through an Oxford bank.
Hailman discusses "Operation Pretense," the FBI sting charging 410 Mississippi supervisors from twenty-six counties with corruption and notes they had requested a second sting operation - to set up a lobbying firm as a front to accept bribe requests from legislators. That second sting operation, which would have worked like the ABSCAM sting against members of Congress earlier, was not approved.
He writes about that day when Judge Henry Lackey came by and after a discussion of blackberry wine shared that Tim Balducci had attempted to influence him, a conversation which led to a series of events and a bribe bringing about the downfall of Dickie Scruggs, the lead attorney against Big Tobacco and Mississippi's "King of Torts."
And he tells the behind the scenes discussions and mercy involving the corruption prosecution of DeSoto County Supervisor John Grisham, Sr. - father of the famed Mississippi novelist. Hailman preserves the integrity of prosecutors while sharing their human side.
For those interested in true Mississippi crime, with a dash of politics, pick up "From Midnight to Guntown."
Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.