Former Raleigh lawyer James Crouch sentenced to minimum of one year in prison

Crouch apologizes for role in DWI backdating

ablythe@newsobserver.comDecember 4, 2012 

— James Crouch stood in a hallway of the Wake County courthouse on Tuesday, anxiously awaiting a judge’s return to the bench, as he had many times in his 20-year legal career.

This time was different, though.

Crouch was awaiting his fate, not the sentence of a client. As his wife, Cary Close, embraced him, her cheeks red and streaked with tears, Crouch, 46, offered solace.

“I’m going to be all right,” Crouch said.

Minutes later, Judge Paul Ridgeway sentenced the man at the center of a DWI backdating scheme to at least one year in prison. That answered the question of whether Crouch would be incarcerated for obstructing justice and altering court documents in several dozen of the thousands of DWI cases he handled in private practice.

What remained a mystery, though, was why Crouch altered court records and some of his office ledgers in a scheme that brought sentencing relief to a small percentage of his clients – and ultimately ended the tenure of a popular, community-minded District Court judge.

“I stand before you, Judge, a man who’s been disgraced, humiliated and had stripped away from my soul any dignity that I’ve earned in my life,” Crouch told Ridgeway before sentencing.

“I have lost my reputation, my livelihood, my name, and the trust of my fellow man. I’ve lost all of those things, and I deserve it. I’ve embarrassed and humiliated my wife and my family, and I’ve caused a lot of pain and embarrassment to my profession.”

But Crouch offered no explanation as to why he risked his professional career and that of his paralegal Elizabeth Michelle Daniel and of former District Court Judge Kristin Ruth to backdate convictions for about four dozen clients either to shorten the time or eliminate the period they were to lose driving privileges. There has been no evidence of financial windfalls from the scheme.

“I think he just wanted to win, and he wanted to win every time, and he wanted to win too badly,” Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said before sentencing. “And it didn’t matter if he had to break the rules to win, to cheat.”

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 Daniel to obstruct justice. The four offenses were treated as two for the purposes of sentencing under a plea arrangement.

“As all the lawyers in this case have said, the real victims of the crimes committed by Mr. Crouch are the citizens of North Carolina,” Ridgeway said.

The crimes Crouch committed could have resulted in 13 years in prison for someone with an extensive criminal history, but that range did not apply in the former lawyer’s case, Ridgeway said. He sentenced Crouch to six months minimum for each of two consolidated crimes.

On Tuesday, Crouch stood before the judge and apologized for his actions, saying he had hit “rock bottom.”

“Nobody wants to go to prison,” Crouch said, but he added that if that were his sentence, he would go with “dignity and honor” and purpose.

‘Bow-tie’ and ‘father-friend’

The sentencing came after an unusually protracted two-day hearing. On Monday, there was emotional testimony from Daniel and Ruth. Crouch, who described himself as a man with low self-esteem who tried to cover his insecurities with brashness, broke down quietly in tears Monday, too.

On Tuesday, Crouch said he had no more tears to shed. “My intent is to make amends and spend the rest of my life doing that,” Crouch said while standing before the judge and a courtroom filled with supporters.

Defense lawyers and prosecutors tried to present widely divergent portrayals of the man whose case cast a somber mood in a typically collegial courthouse.

Defense attorney Joseph B. Cheshire V described his client as “bow-tie James” in reference to the bow ties he routinely wore to court and the aggressive attitude that often accompanied that attire. There also is a softer side, Cheshire said, the “father-friend James” who is highly regarded by family and friends.

“He’s not wearing a bow-tie today,” Cheshire said Tuesday, trying to emphasize a changed attitude.

Prosecutors worked to portray Crouch as a cavalier lawyer with a disregard of the public who broke the rules for financial gain. “He has done so much to hurt the courts,” Willoughby said. “He’s done so much to hurt the judiciary.”

Defense attorneys conceded that Crouch pushed the envelope, but they disagreed with the way prosecutors characterized some of his actions. “There’s no credible evidence that James Crouch stole money from his clients or intended to steal money from his clients,” defense attorney Brad Bannon told the judge Tuesday.

300 new DWI cases a year

Crouch, a Campbell University law school graduate, took on 300 to 400 DWI cases a year, according to his paralegal, sometimes going to court with 30 to 40 cases a day while also juggling 40 to 50 misdemeanor appeals each week.

“James Crouch would come into this courtroom and act like he was the man,” Cheshire said. “He took way too many cases because that was his way to prove that he was the man when, in fact, he wasn’t.”

Defense attorneys contended that prosecutors unfairly singled out Crouch and his staff, pursuing them on criminal charges before going to the State Bar first with questions about ethical violations.

But prosecutors pushed back with evidence that Crouch pleaded guilty last month after his attorneys discovered he and his paralegal had altered some of his office ledgers that they had submitted to the court, further obstructing justice.

Ruth, a former District Court judge, took the stand late Monday to testify about the harm she has suffered from the scheme. She said she unwittingly signed orders for Crouch because of her trusting nature. On Tuesday, 288 days after the investigation started, Crouch apologized to the former judge.

“It’s my fault. The consequences to her, I feel responsible for, and I will have to live with that for the rest of my life,” Crouch said. “I hope, at some point in her life, that she will forgive me.”

Crouch said Tuesday that in an odd way he was relieved that he had been stopped. “As crazy as it sounds, I’m almost glad it happened,” Crouch told the judge before sentencing. “I was miserable.”

Assistant District Attorney Boz Zellinger said it was important to punish Crouch to preserve the integrity of a courthouse and profession.

“Our courtrooms are sculpted by the people who practice in it,” said Zellinger, an assistant district attorney. “Mr. Crouch isn’t unique because he worked so hard to represent his clients. He’s unique because he broke the law to do so. …

“This is a crime that’s going to dent the public’s confidence in our criminal justice system.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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