Enough rope

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 3, 2004

Let's hope Richard Scrushy's lawyers are right, that he has no intention of fleeing the country to avoid prosecution in the HealthSouth fraud case. Because if running has crossed Scrushy's mind, a judge has certainly left a door open.

Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge T. Michael Putnam significantly loosened the leash on Scrushy as he awaits trial on 85 counts related to a $2.7 billion fraud at HealthSouth. Scrushy will no longer have to wear an electronic monitor on his ankle; he will be able to leave the northern district of Alabama; indeed, he will be able to leave the state, including trips to coastal regions that will place him temptingly close to international waters.

Putnam included certain conditions designed to ensure that Scrushy is still here to stand trial. For instance, Scrushy must be traveling with an attorney in some instances, and he is forbidden from traveling with his family in other instances. He must provide authorities with his travel plans. All these provide at least a measure of comfort - but how much?

It's true that Scrushy is innocent unless he is proved guilty in a court of law. But it's also true that defendants are routinely subjected to such travel restrictions before trial - especially in cases where they have the resources to flee and face penalties severe enough to offer an incentive to flee. Scrushy rates high on both counts, having both substantial means and motivation to avoid trial.

Furthermore, there are questions about the breaks afforded Scrushy. One trip Scrushy got specific permission to take was to go to Palm Beach, Fla., to discuss selling his $10 million estate there. What's not clear is why Scrushy can be discussing a sale at all, since this is among the properties the federal government has frozen and targeted for forfeiture.

Then there's the question of the ankle monitor. According to his lawyers, Scrushy needed to be free of the monitor because it frequently malfunctioned due to the amount of metal in his home. Does that mean other defendants wanting to shed their ankle bracelets should rush out and add more metals to their homes?

That's not the only issue about monitoring. Authorities were until this week also keeping tabs on Scrushy through a computerized phone system that called his residence twice a day. Now, Scrushy will instead be able to call in twice a day from a phone that will verify his location.

"He wants a system where he initiates the calls and not a computer that calls and wakes up his babies at night," said Abbe Lowell, one of Scrushy's lawyers. That sounds reasonable, until you remember that Scrushy's $3 million home has 20 rooms and nearly 16,000 square feet. Perhaps it has terribly thin walls?

None of this should be taken to mean that Scrushy deserves harsher treatment than other defendants in his position. But judges shouldn't give Scrushy breaks that would not be afforded other defendants or that would make it unnecessarily easy for him to flee prosecution.

Defense lawyers dismiss the idea, saying Scrushy fully intends to stay here and clear his name. All the same, courts don't need to make it too tempting for Scrushy to run.

The Birmingham News

Jan. 2, 2004