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US judge delays criminal sentencing of Duke Energy

By Anne Blythe

A federal judge took the opportunity to share what he described as a “light moment” on Tuesday after agreeing to delay by one month the criminal sentencing of Duke Energy related to coal-ash pollution.

U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm J. Howard had read sealed documents provided by Duke Energy, in which attorneys laid out concerns that could arise out of an expected plea agreement related to nine criminal charges stemming from illegal coal ash discharges.

Once convicted of a crime under the Clean Water Act, the utility would be disqualified from entering into new or modified contracts with the federal government. The expected probation period is five years.

That could mean trouble, Duke officials say, for military bases in Duke Energy territory — Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, were mentioned in court — as well as federal courthouses, post offices and large office complexes scattered through Research Triangle Park and elsewhere.

Duke officials had asked for the delay of a sentencing hearing that had been set for later this week in Greenville so they could try to work out a waiver with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Howard, the federal judge who presided over the 20-minute hearing, asked about the possibility of the lights going out in Fort Bragg, whose contract with Duke Energy expires in September.

Banumathi Rangarajan, the assistant U.S. attorney whose investigation into Duke led to nine misdemeanor charges against the utility for polluting four of the state’s rivers with coal ash, told Howard she did not expect the worst.

“No power will be shut off, your honor,” she said.

Howard granted the delay, not for the reasons requested by Duke, which were filed under seal with the federal court. Instead, the judge said figuring out the logistics for keeping a company on probation for five years had been a difficult task that needed more thought.

The sentencing was rescheduled for May 14 in Greenville. Then the judge brought out lyrics for a song that he had been reminded of while reading documents in preparation for the Tuesday hearing.

One of his aides had taken a minute “to consult Mr. Google,” then produced the lyrics for “The Nights the Lights Went Out In Georgia,” a so-called “Southern Gothic” song written in 1972 by songwriter Bobby Russell and sung by Vicki Lawrence.

The judge singled out one line and recited it.

“Don’t trust your soul to no backwoods Southern lawyer;

“Cause the judge in the town’s got bloodstains on his hand,” Howard said, with a touch of song in his voice.

Then with a smile, he looked down from the bench at the attorneys in his courtroom and added: “I don’t think that applies to any of my Southern lawyers’ friends.”

Then he pointed them to the copies of the song he had printed for them and recessed the hearing for a month.

Blythe: 919-836-4948;

Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”

Lyrics by Bobby Russell

He was on his way home from Candletop

Been two weeks gone and he thought he’d stop

At Web’s and have him a drink for he went home to her

Andy Wo-Lo said hello

He said “Hi what’s new”

And Wo said “Sit down I got some bad news that’s gonna hurt”

Said I’m your best friend and you know that’s right

But your young bride ain’t home tonight

Since you been gone she’s been seeing that Amos boy Seth

Now he got mad and he saw red

Andy said boy don’t you lose your head

Cause to tell you the truth I’ve been with her myself

That’s the night that the lights went out in Georgia

That’s the night that they hung an innocent man

Well Don’t trust your soul to no back woods Southern lawyer

Cause the judge in the town’s got bloodstains on his hands

Andy got scared and left the bar

Walking on home cause he didn’t live far you see

Andy didn’t have many friends and he just lost him one

Brother thought his wife must’ve left town

So he went home and finally found the only thing

Daddy had left him and that was a gun

He went off to Andy’s house

Slipping through the back woods quiet as a mouse

Came upon some tracks too small for Andy to make

He looked through the screen at the back porch door

And he saw Andy lying on the floor

In a puddle of blood and he started to shake

The Georgia patrol was making their rounds

So he fired a shot just to flag em down

A big bellied sheriff grabbed his gun and said

“Why’d you do it?”

The judge said guilty on a make-believe trial

Slapped the sherriff on the back with a smile

Said supper’s waiting at home and I gotta get to it

That’s the night the lights went out in Georgia

That’s the night that they hung an innocent man

Don’t trust your soul to no back woods Southern lawyer

Cause the judge in the town’s got bloodstains on his hands

Well, they hung my brother before I could say

The tracks he saw while on his way

To Andy’s house and back that night were mine

And his cheatin wife had never left town

That’s one body that’ll never be found

You see little sister don’t miss when she aims her gun

That’s the night the lights went out in Georgia

That’s the night that they hung an innocent man

Don’t trust your soul to no back woods Southern lawyer

Cause the judge in the town’s got bloodstains on his hand

That’s the night the lights went out in Georgia

That’s the night that they hung an innocent man

Don’t trust your soul to no back woods Southern lawyer

Cause the judge in the town’s got bloodstains on his hand

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