In the morning, I read in the newspaper about the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian author and dissident who shined a spotlight on the evil of gulag prison camps under Josef Stalin's Communist regime.
My guess is that many Americans read about Solzhenitsyn's death and thought that he had chronicled events that only could take place in another time and another place.
But that evening I returned home to find a letter that reminded me that a touch of Stalinism is present right here--in the United States--right now. And I wondered: How many Americans know about this evil that is taking place right under their noses? How many Americans are too busy chatting on cell phones while weaving through traffic in SUVs to even care that we have political prisoners in the United States--in 2008?
My letter was from Wes Teel, a former state judge in Mississippi who is in federal prison in Atlanta after being convicted in the Paul Minor case. Wes and I have never met; we've never even talked on the phone. But we got acquainted via e-mail when I began to write about the Minor case last September.
Wes and his codefendants, fellow state judge John Whitfield and well-know plaintiff's attorney Paul Minor, had been convicted, and Wes was looking at reporting to federal prison in December 2007.
In our e-mail exchanges, I found Wes to be a man of keen intellect, common sense, and good humor--even in the face of going to prison for a crime he did not commit. I came to consider Wes a friend, and I shared his pain when he had a heart attack not long after reporting to federal prison. I shared his concerns about his wife, Myrna, who has multiple sclerosis and needed care while her husband was eight hours away in federal prison. I know he worried about his grandchildren and what they would grow up to think of a country that could imprison their grandfather simply for doing his job as a state judge.
On the surface, Wes and I might seem like unlikely friends. My blog started only because of the wrongdoing I had witnessed from lawyers and judges in Alabama state courts. Corrupt lawyers and judges have brought my wife and me to the edge of ruin--and here was Wes, a lawyer and former judge who was charged with being corrupt himself.
But here is one of many lessons I've learned from my Legal Schnauzer journey: Just because you've had a bad experience with someone in a certain profession, don't assume that everyone in that profession is a bad actor.
After studying the Minor case at length, I realized that Wes Teel and John Whitfield were honest judges. They ruled for Paul Minor's clients because that's what the facts and the law required them to do. And I realized that, based on the evidence I had seen, Paul Minor was an honest lawyer. Certainly in the cases the government had used to build its prosecution, Minor acted properly, and his client prevailed because they should have prevailed.
The Minor case taught me that not even all Republican judges are corrupt. Another codefendant was Oliver Diaz, a justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court who was tried and acquitted twice. And Diaz is a Republican.
I realized that the bad guys in the Minor case were not lawyers, judges, or even Republicans. No, it is that certain breed of Republican that has been infected by a virus that seems to have started with George W. Bush and Karl Rove and wound up sickening our entire justice system.
Wes Teel is a victim of that justice system. His letter made me sad, angry, and ultimately, determined:
Here is how Wes' letter begins:
Greetings from the federal gulag system. Unlike the old Soviet gulag, we are not in Siberia freezing our appeals off. Instead, I am hundreds of miles from my home, unable to assist my sick wife, and doing nothing but wasting time--not to mention all of the taxpayer's money, to house, feed, and care for me.
Wes said he works as a dorm orderly:
I certainly don't mind working, or this particular job; however, it seems to me a vast waste of resources. For the most part, if prison is supposed to rehabilitate a person, there are few opportunities to do so. There are no college classes available, no meaningful job-training classes. (Unless you want to be a janitor--I'm serious!)
Wes said he misses his wife and family terribly and has had only one visit since December 2007. If he had been sent to federal facilities in Yazoo City, Mississippi, or Pensacola, Florida, it would have made more sense, Wes says:
The only good thing about this experience is that it has greatly increased my faith in God. I truly believe we go through troubled times so that we will learn to depend on God, and not ourselves.
Wes' appeal has been filed in federal court, but he said true relief for him and other political prisoners probably will have to come from the political arena. He emphasizes the important role of Congress in getting to the bottom of the Justice Department scandal.
Wes' faith in the legal profession has been jolted. He recalls his wife saving money to buy him a law-school ring upon his graduation some 30 years ago. He wore the ring for more than 30 years, but he has not been able to put it back on after seeing what transpired in Judge Henry Wingate's federal courtroom in the Minor trial:
My previous faith in our legal system--a system I have honored all these many years--had been hopelessly destroyed. I could no longer wear jewelry which symbolized honor, truth, and justice when I was denied these by the prosecutors and the court.
Wes encouraged me to keep fighting in my personal battle with our broken justice system. And he offered powerful insights about what troubles our nation:
We are no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as Lincoln so eloquently stated. We are now a government of the polls, by the elections, and for the elections. It seems that all that matters is winning elections, keeping in power, and destroying the lives of political opponents. Simply defeating one at the election booth is not enough, and retaining power in office instead of protecting our freedoms, is the all-consuming goal for many.
What does it mean to be a political prisoner in the United States?
Due to the conviction, unless it is overturned, I am essentially no longer a citizen. I can't vote, possess a firearm, hold a bond, run for public office, or ever practice law again. Despite all of this, I have a vested stake in the success of our Republic. I want my grandchildren to grow up and be proud of our constitution and our government. I pray that change will one day come, and my precious grandchildren can come to enjoy the freedoms instituted by our Founding Fathers and paid for by the blood and sacrifice of many patriots.