Crouch sentencing to resume after dramatic first day

ablythe@newsobserver.comDecember 3, 2012 

CROUCH1.NE.111312.TI

Former attorney James Crouch, accused of altering court documents in dozens of DWI cases, listens to a judge while he appeared in a Wake County courtroom Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. He pleaded guilty to all charges.

TAKAAKI IWABU — tiwabu@newsobserver.com

— James Crouch arrived in a Wake County courtroom Monday morning with a crowd of supporters at his back.

The former Raleigh lawyer was scheduled to be sentenced after pleading guilty on Nov. 13 to obstruction of justice charges in a DWI backdating scheme that ended the administration of a popular district court judge.

Though the hearing delivered large on details and drama, it failed to deliver a sentence.

Judge Paul Ridgeway stopped the proceedings late in the afternoon and said the hearing would resume in the morning.

The daylong hearing offered familiar details of a scheme that Crouch used to help DWI defendants get reduced penalties. There was emotional testimony from Elizabeth Michelle Daniel, a former paralegal facing charges in the case, and from Kristin Ruth, a former district court judge who resigned from the bench amid the SBI investigation into the handling of 55 DWI cases.

Crouch, who has declined comment on his predicament, broke down quietly in tears as a former paralegal testified about his endeavors to help clients who sometimes could not pay him.

Prosecutors worked throughout the day to portray Crouch as a cavalier lawyer who broke the rules for financial gain.

Defense attorneys contended otherwise.

Crouch, a Campbell University law school graduate, took on nearly 3,000 new DWI cases a year, according to his paralegal. He sometimes would go to court with 30 to 40 cases along with 40 to 50 misdemeanor appeals each week.

Defense attorneys contend that prosecutors have unfairly singled Crouch and his staff out, focusing on his actions from a four-year period without conducting a thorough investigation of a practice that some lawyers contend was used by others in the Wake County courthouse.

The hearing has provided a glimpse of the defense that Joseph B. Cheshire V, Brad Bannon and Alan Schneider were prepared to mount had the case gone to trial.

But Crouch pleaded guilty last month to two counts of obstruction of justice; one count of altering documents, a felony; and one count of conspiring with his legal aide, Daniel, to obstruct justice.

The convictions 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 Crouch’s clients.

Records from the former lawyer’s practice show that Crouch had charged some of his clients $500 to $750 extra to get convictions backdated, but his legal aide testified Monday that he got the extra money on some cases and not on others.

Ruth, a former district court judge, took the stand late Monday to testify about the harm she has suffered from the scheme.

She unwittingly signed orders for Crouch’s paralegals, she said, because she trusted him and them.

In her 13 years on the bench Ruth developed a reputation as being a community-spirited judge who tried to develop options other than jail for defendants.

On Monday, she told the judge that she accepted responsibility for her part, but that her life had been in tumult since she first found out about the scheme.

“It’s been 287 days since this happened,” Ruth said in emotionally halting testimony.

She said one of the most difficult times was telling her 93-year-old mother that she no longer would be a judge.

Ruth resigned from the bench in May. She pleaded guilty in July to failing to discharge the duties of her office, a misdemeanor.

She 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.

But the paralegals said they did not think they were doing anything against the law.

In court, Crouch had a reputation as being a tough and dogged litigator whose personality could be laced with a heavy dose of arrogance.

Though Crouch knew in February he was the target of an SBI probe, the lawyer continued to represent clients. He continued to take cases to court after being indicted in July, too.

Several days before his plea hearing, the State Bar, the organization that oversees North Carolina lawyers, froze the trust accounts of Crouch.

Crouch, a Winston-Salem native who got an undergraduate degree in economics and political science from East Carolina University and received his law degree from Campbell University in 1992, sat quietly by his legal team for most of Monday.

Lawyers who have been by his side in district court watched somberly as he awaited his sentence. He faces up to 13 years in prison.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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