Is the Don Siegelman case playing out all over again, this time in Mobile, Alabama?
The case of noted outdoorsman Edmond H. "Eddie" Smith IV is alarming enough to make that a legitimate question.
Siegelman, one of the most successful politicians in Alabama history, has spent nine months in federal prison and could be headed back there, pending the outcome of various motions and appeals. Smith has been in the Mobile County Jail for more than eight months on a federal firearms-related conviction.
We have reviewed both cases and concluded that both men are not guilty of the crimes with which they were charged. Our research indicates it's not a close call, in either case.
So how does this happen in what is supposed to be the greatest democracy on earth? How do two men, with very different backgrounds and personalities, wind up in federal custody for crimes they did not commit?
Both appear to be victims of a corrupt U.S. Department of Justice, one that became grossly dysfunctional under George W. Bush and remains deeply troubled roughly nine months into the Barack Obama administration.
Siegelman clearly was the target of a political prosecution. Smith appears to have been targeted in what we have called a "financial prosecution," a case driven not by a lust for political power but by the allure of an attractive (and valuable) piece of property.
Neither case appears to have been brought, or prosecuted, based on facts or law. Both cases seem to represent a perverse form of "justice" that has become a trademark of the deep-red Deep South, particularly in Alabama.
How has Dixie become home to a "toxic stew" of politics and justice that can produce outrages such as the Siegelman and Smith cases? Perhaps we can shine light on that question by examining the similarities between the two cases:
* The Mobile Press-Register Connection--Eddie Curran, a reporter for the Mobile Press-Register, is credited with "breaking" the Siegelman story. Curran produced a multi-part series, more than 100 stories in all, on the Siegelman administration. Curran also produced a multi-part series on Eddie Smith in 2007. (Paul Cloos edited both series.) In both series, the Press-Register generated voluminous amounts of unflattering information about the subjects. But there was precious little about actions that would rise to the level of crimes. In the case of Siegelman, even federal prosecutors did not include much of Curran's material in the criminal case. In the case of Smith, the paper provided details about several legal entanglements that pre-dated the series. But there is little, if any, information about ongoing unlawful activity on Smith's part. Despite that, both Siegelman and Smith wound up as targets of federal prosecutions. The bottom line? Press-Register "investigations" have a curious way of leading to federal prosecutions, whether the stories point to actual criminal wrongdoing or not.
* A Bush-Appointed Judge--U.S. District Judge William H. Steele, a George W. Bush appointee, oversaw the Smith prosecution in the Southern District of Alabama. Another Bush appointee, Mark Fuller, oversaw the Siegelman case in the Middle District of Alabama. Bush seemed to have particularly big plans for Steele. The president nominated Steele for a seat on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2001, but the nomination became stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee because African-American groups protested Steele's decisions in two civil-rights cases as a magistrate judge. The 11th-circuit nomination wound up going to Bill Pryor. Is Steele cut from the same cloth as Mark Fuller? Sure looks that way.
* A Dysfunctional Prosecutor's Office--Alabama perhaps is best known for its corrupt Bush-appointed U.S. attorneys in the Northern District (Alice Martin) and Middle District (Leura Canary). But the Southern District has not been much better. While the Northern and Middle districts suffered from poor leadership, the Southern District has had almost no leadership at all. David York, Bush's original appointee, resigned amid allegations of an improper relationship. Deborah Rhodes, who had served in U.S. attorney offices in San Diego and Philadelphia, took over in 2005. In 2007, Rhodes was asked to wear two hats--becoming principal associate deputy attorney general in Washington, D.C., along with her duties in Mobile. Is it safe to say that the Mobile U.S. attorney's office has been a rudderless ship for several years? It sure looks that way.
* Questionable Prosecutorial Tactics--This is a theme that cropped up time and again in Alabama during the Bush years. And the questionable tactics tended to pay off when Bush-appointed judges were in charge. In the Siegelman case, prosecutors wrote a vague affidavit that disguised the fact that the alleged criminal actions took place well outside the five-year statute of limitations. Fuller let them get away with it. In the case of Alabama Rep. Sue Schmitz, prosecutors filed a motion in limine that asked the court to strike most of Schmitz' key defenses. A Bush-appointed judge, David Proctor, let them get away with it. In the Smith case, prosecutors filed a motion in limine asking the court to prevent Smith from arguing that he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, not a felony, in an underlying state case. Steele let them get away with it, cutting off Smith's No. 1 defense. A motion in limine is designed to reject evidence that is inadmissible or unfairly prejudicial. In Alabama during the Age of Bush, prosecutors and judges appear to have used them to deprive defendants of critical, and legitimate, defenses.
(To be continued)