I am Tom Freeland, a lawyer in Oxford, Mississippi. The picture in the header is my law office. I'm on Twitter as NMissC

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Merrell Williams, who gave (or sold) tobacco documents to Scruggs, dies at 72

Longtime Oxford folks may remember Abbie’s Irish Rose, one of the first bars in Oxford, that opened in what had been the lobby of the Henry Hotel, later renamed the Abbey (because it had windows from a prior occupant of that space, the Methodist Church), in the mid-70s. Its owner, Merrell Williams, came to town driving a Bentley and with a lot of stuff that was the remnants of an English pub. He set it all up and opened, I think in the Summer of 1975. I don’t think he lasted a year there, the bar closing down (later to reopen, one of a long sequence of ends/beginnings at that location), and he moved on. Williams wasn’t heard of thereafter…

Until the release of stolen tobacco documents erupted on the scene. I can’t remember when it dawned on me that this Merrill Williams was that Merrill Williams; it was certainly by the time Micheal Orey published Assuming the Risk, his account of the tobacco cases, and did a reading in Oxford where he brought up Williams’ tale.

A central part of that story was Dickie Scruggs’s acquisition of the tobacco documents, and the (no-showing-up required) job, house and sailboat Scruggs gave Williams.

Others may remember that Williams would occasionally arrive and begin commenting on the old Folo blog with regard to one Scruggs-related matter or another.

Williams died on November 18, 2013 at 72. In his New York Times obituary, after noting that the theft of the documents was a central part of the tobacco litigation, the Times notes:

The episode was further complicated when it became known that Mr. Williams had accepted a house, two cars, a boat and a $3,000-a-month no-show job from the lawyer leading the charge against the tobacco industry.

When Mr. Williams came to work at the firm, Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, in January 1988 as a $9-an-hour paralegal, it was his latest stop in a checkered career. …At the law firm, he was one of a dozen employees assigned to review thousands of boxes of documents that Brown & Williamson, the nation’s third-largest tobacco company, had squirreled away over the years. …

Mr. Williams started smuggling documents out of the law firm around Christmas 1988, stuffing them in an exercise girdle he wore under loose clothing. … In April 1994 he met with Richard Scruggs, a personal injury lawyer who had won enormous victories over the asbestos industry. In Orlando, Fla., he showed Mr. Scruggs about 4,000 pages of documents that he had stashed with a friend.

It was Mr. Scruggs who gave him the house and other gifts and arranged for a job that did not require him to show up. Mr. Scruggs denied that the gifts — or loans, as he sometimes characterized them — were a quid pro quo for getting the stolen documents. But when The St. Petersburg Times asked him if he would have been so generous if Mr. Williams had not provided the documents, Mr. Scruggs said: “That’s a hard question. I don’t know.”


9 comments to Merrell Williams, who gave (or sold) tobacco documents to Scruggs, dies at 72

  • Leaving aside my loathing for the tobacco industry, I confess to being unclear how stealing documents is not a crime, let alone receiving stolen property. I suppose it was part of Scruggs’s genius not to fret over such questions.

  • NMC

    The term for what the recipient did used by prosecutors would be “receiving stolen property” if he’d taken out desks and given them to a fence.

    Reading Assuming the Risk provokes a deep dislike for both sides and their methods, and leaves the conclusion that each was more engaged in a form of extra-judicial piracy, self-justified by pointing to the other side’s piracy, than anything commonly known as litigation. I suppose, also for each, just another example of there being a great crime behind each great fortune.

  • Sounds right. Is that book a good one?

  • I would like a good book on the whole asbestos fiasco. Heard of one once but can’t remember, and evidently I would rather say that than google.

  • NMC

    Among the many interesting things I concluded reading about tobacco and asbestos was that the point where Scruggs was ready to dump his law partners who helped showed him the ropes, drew in cases, and actually did the work was the moment when the kinds of cases he’d been doing were about to become virtually annuities (settled into monitoring projects, not so much ongoing work) and it was becoming obvious to him that the tobacco cases were about to launch and become a gold mine. So he threw over and attempted to cheat his partners and then, while litigating with them, used their money he was banking as part of the financing of the tobacco effort.

    And thus the lawsuit with Luckey (who got a $16M judgment a decade later when he finally got to court) and with Roberts Wilson (whose case eventually fell into Judge DeLaughter’s hands).

    There really needs to be something written that stitches together all these parts. I’d still like to do it, but wonder how to find the time.

  • Hootie Dasher

    NMC, when you write this, be careful about attributing any victories to DS (as the long quote did). Settlements all. No verdicts, except maybe the Mary Abrams trial where DS split the opening with Ron Motley.

  • NMC

    Have I attributed verdicts to DS? He didn’t try cases.

  • NMC

    oh- got it. It’s in the Times obit. I knew better than that…

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