RALEIGH — James Crouch was an aggressive lawyer, but he proved to be a reckless client.
On Tuesday, the 46-year-old Wake County resident pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice charges in a DWI backdating scheme that ended the reign of a popular District Court judge and created a somber mood in a typically collegial courthouse.
As judges, lawyers, family and friends watched, Crouch became a felon and lost his law license the same day.
Its an amazing fall from grace for James, said Joseph B. Cheshire V, the Raleigh attorney who defended him. Its been a hard fall that he will acknowledge at the time of his sentencing is one of his own doing.
Defense attorneys Cheshire, Brad Bannon and Alan Schneider were ready to fight the charges lodged against Crouch in July. But last week, the team discovered that Crouch had altered records from some of the DWI cases at the crux of the allegations, doctoring the documents after he had already been accused of obstruction of justice.
The attorneys had turned over the financial documents to Wake County district attorney, not realizing that their client had altered his law firm files and billing statements for DWI cases already under scrutiny. The changes were intended to hide his practice of charging from $500 to $750 extra to get convictions backdated, a change that often reduced penalties for his clients.
Cheshire and his team confronted Crouch, and he acknowledged altering the records, they said. They informed the district attorney that they had unknowingly provided him with doctored documents. They also notified the State Bar, which oversees North Carolina lawyers.
When something like that happens, the case is essentially over, Cheshire said after the plea hearing. We were preparing for trial, but the world changed last week. It was a stunning week last week, just a heartbreaker.
Crouch, a lawyer who handled a high volume of traffic and drunken-driving cases in Wake County, rose before the judge as he had many times with clients prepared to enter pleas.
It was Crouch, though, doing the pleading before Judge Paul Ridgeway.
He pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice, one count of altering documents, a felony, and one count of conspiring with Elizabeth Daniel, his legal aide, to obstruct justice.
The accusations stem from his handling of dozens of DWI cases from May 1, 2008, to April 30, 2012, and a backdating scheme that typically resulted in either the sparing of a license suspension or a shortened time without a license for Crouchs clients.
Kristin Ruth, a former District Court judge, was pulled into the scheme by unwittingly signing orders for Crouch that she had not read, according to her testimony at a plea hearing last summer.
Ruth, who in 13 years on the bench developed a reputation as being a community-spirited judge who tried to work with defense lawyers to develop options other than jail for defendants, resigned in May. She pleaded guilty in July to failing to discharge the duties of her office, a misdemeanor.
Ruth testified that Crouch, a defense attorney she first got to know in law school, abused her trusting nature. She said Crouch or his paralegal would slip orders into a stack of court documents for her to sign in which she backdated convictions.
I absolutely trusted James Crouch, Ruth said at the hearing July 29. I had no reason not to trust him.
Crouch, a Winston-Salem native who received an undergraduate degree in economics and political science from East Carolina University, received his law degree from Campbell University in 1992.
For a while, his friends say, he practiced law at N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, then went into practice with Raleigh defense attorney Tommy Manning in 1993. Eventually, Crouch set off on his own. Over the years, he built one of the largest traffic case practices in Wake County. In court, Crouch has a reputation as being a tough and dogged litigator.
On Friday, the State Bar froze the trust accounts of Crouch after his defense team reported the further altering of documents. On Tuesday, Ridgeway read from a plea agreement outlined in a letter from prosecutors.
If Crouch pleaded guilty to all the charges lodged against him in July, crimes that could bring as many as 13 years in prison, prosecutors agreed not to add further criminal charges for the altering of documents.
Crouch agreed to work with the Bar as it further investigated the state of his trust accounts to determine whether he had diverted clients funds for personal use. He agreed to surrender his law license, but when that would happen was a topic of discussion at his plea hearing.
Typically lawyers get 30 days to wind down their practices, but prosecutors said Crouch should be disbarred immediately.
I dont think he ought to be allowed to practice law any further, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.
Willoughby said the actions that Crouch pleaded guilty to strike at the very heart of what were doing as lawyers.
I just dont see how we can have him back in the courts plea bargaining, Willoughby said.
The judge ruled as part of the pre-trial release agreement that Crouchs license suspension take place immediately, and Katherine Jean, disciplinary counsel for the State Bar, left the Wake County Courthouse shortly after the hearing to follow suit.
Lawyers who have rallied around Crouch since his legal troubles began have agreed to help close out the hundreds of cases he has that are still active.
John McWilliam, a Raleigh lawyer who has supported Crouch and attended the hearing, declined to talk at length about his friend, saying he did not want to jeopardize his case before sentencing.
But he said some of Crouchs actions could be explained by unwieldy DWI case procedures. Crouchs other actions, such as the recent altering of his law firm records, were simply panicking, McWilliam said.
Crouch, who has declined to comment about his predicament, is to be sentenced the first week of December.