Raleigh, N.C. — A Wake County judge on Tuesday sentenced a former Raleigh defense attorney to 12 to 34 months in prison on charges that he altered court records relating to dozens of DWI convictions in an effort to lessen driving penalties for his clients.
James Crouch pleaded guilty last month to charges that he backdated convictions in an effort to shorten or eliminate license suspensions in approximately 50 driving while impaired cases from May 2008 to April 2012.
The sentence, handed down by Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway, was the harshest possible under state sentencing guidelines.
"The offenses for which I have imposed judgment erode the trust and integrity that is so important to our system of justice," Ridgeway said. "It is now the task of each of us to redouble our efforts to repair that damage, to recommit ourselves to the administration of true justice and to fully restore the confidence and trust of the citizens of our court.”
A long-time Raleigh attorney whose practice handled more than 2,000 cases each year, Crouch was also disbarred as part of his plea deal with prosecutors.
"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. I'm embracing that. You don't have to tell me, I know."
Defense attorney Joseph Cheshire said Crouch had become arrogant and took on too many cases, took shortcuts and made serious mistakes.
"James Crouch would come into this courtroom and act like he was the man," Cheshire said. "He was probably too arrogant, too self-assured. He took way too many cases because that was his way to prove that he was the man when, in, fact, he wasn't."
Witnesses testified during the two-day sentencing hearing this week that many of Crouch's clients in the questionable cases paid him an extra $750 to change the date of their DWI conviction using a legal action to correct clerical errors called a "nunc pro tunc" order and that former District Judge Kristin Ruth unknowingly signed off on the orders.
Defense attorney Brad Bannon said that, over the course of the five years in question, Crouch represented between 1,000 to 2,000 people on DWI charges and the number of cases in question was a relatively small percentage of them.
"He obtained this relief in 80 cases," Bannon said.
Doing so, he added, was no different than what other attorneys do, but there were distinct differences in how he went about it.
"He went and did it outside of court. He went to a judge who did not preside over the case, and he did not notify opposing counsel," Bannon said.
Crouch was indicted in June on two felony counts of obstruction of justice and one felony count each of criminal conspiracy and altering court documents – charges that carry a maximum of 13 years in prison.
Ruth, who was also indicted in the case, resigned from the bench in May and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of failure to discharge the duties of her office.
She testified Monday that she signed the orders without reading them because she trusted Crouch, a longtime colleague and family friend.
She was among a number of people Crouch apologized to Tuesday.
"I know more than anyone that I do apologize to this court, and first and foremost, to Judge Ruth," he said. "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. I hope, at some point in her life, that she will forgive me."
But District Attorney Colon Willoughby said Ruth, a highly respected judge who had the potential to go on to the state Court of Appeals or state Supreme Court, was not the only victim of the crime.
Crouch's actions also caused "tremendous harm" to his family, the people who worked for him and how the Wake County Courthouse operates.
"It's caused great harm to the practice of law and how we'll be able to practice law in this district and how we'll be able to do the business that the people expect us to do because of the level of distrust created because of this defendant's conduct," Willoughby said.
Crouch also damaged the public's faith in the court system.
"Our public expects lawyers to demand justice and be fair and do what's right. It's a system built on trust and honor, and Mr. Crouch violated his clients' trust," Wake County Assistant District Attorney Boz Zellinger said. "He violated a well-respected District Court's trust, and he violated this court's trust, and in doing so, has violated the public's trust in the system, and that's truly what this case is about."