Consider that, a little more than a year ago, we elected our first African-American president, a step many people would consider a sign of progress. But at the same time, the spirit of Russian dictator Josef Stalin lives on in America--and evidence of that came last week with the latest ruling in the Paul Minor case.
Stalin, of course, was known for sending his political opponents to prison camps. The U.S. Justice Department, under George W. Bush, adopted a similar strategy. And its victims included Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and three men in Mississippi--attorney Paul Minor and former state judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield.
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied a petition for an en banc hearing last week in the Minor case, indicating that it is willing to help cover up the Stalinesque tactics of the Bush regime.
Is anyone in the Obama Justice Department paying attention? Is Congress willing to exercise its oversight authority over a justice system that is hopelessly off track? We've seen no signs of it.
What does last week's Fifth Circuit ruling mean? In December, a three-judge panel of the appellate court overturned the bribery convictions against the Minor defendants but allowed several fraud-related convictions to stand.
That ruling, while welcome to an extent, was preposterous on the whole because the fraud convictions were based on jury instructions that were not even close to being correct under the law. That's because U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate, who should be the subject of a federal investigation, issued jury instructions that he had to know were bogus.
Here's how we described it in an earlier post:
How on earth did a jury convict three men for a crime they clearly did not commit? It happened because Judge Henry Wingate presented the jury with instructions that did not come close to matching the actual law.
In an earlier post, we cited this critical portion of Wingate's jury instruction on honest-services fraud:
"You may find specific criminal intent even though you may find that the rulings were legal and correct, that the official conduct would have been done anyway, that the official conduct sought to be influenced was lawful and required by law, and that the official conduct was desirable or beneficial to the public welfare."
There's only one problem with that jury instruction: It isn't correct under the law, not even close. Henry Wingate simply pulled it out of his . . . well, you get the idea.
Minor's attorneys note that the U.S. Supreme Court already is questioning the constitutionality of the honest-services fraud statute at issue in the case. But the Minor appeal shouldn't come down to that.
Wingate ensured that the defendants would be convicted for a "crime" that doesn't exist. Imagine that you get convicted of "fraud" in a federal courtroom because you once ate an ice-cream cone. "But eating an ice-cream cone isn't illegal!" you would understandably say. What the Minor defendants were alleged to have done, even if taken as true, isn't a crime either. But a corrupt judge used faulty jury instructions to concoct a "crime" out of thin air.
Because of that, Paul Minor has served almost four years in federal prison already. And while his sentence might be reduced with the bribery convictions overturned, Wingate still is in charge of the case--so there is no reason to think the law will be correctly applied at this late stage.
Why did the full Fifth Circuit refuse to hear the Minor case? We can think of three reasons:
* The appellate judges, Republican and Democratic nominees alike, have a vested interest in perpetuating the myth that our courts are honest. They are, we suspect, covering for a corrupt district judge. In other words, they are more concerned about protecting the legal profession, and their lofty positions in it, than they are about justice.
* The judges probably hope the Minor defendants will die in prison, so they are never able to get out and tell the truth about what happened in their case;
* The judges know that if the convictions are totally overturned, the Minor defendants will be released from prison and probably will file lawsuits seeking justice in the civil arena for the massive injustices they have suffered in criminal courts. Such lawsuits could lead to all kinds of uncomfortable moments for people like Karl Rove, George W. Bush, and their many Deep South acolytes.
That third factor, we suspect, is the big key. And we suspect that's the reason the Don Siegelman convictions were not totally overturned by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Interestingly, the 11th Circuit, in Siegelman, did just the opposite of what the Fifth Circuit did in Minor: It overturned the fraud convictions but left the bribery convictions in place. Almost sounds like a fix was in across the circuits, doesn't it?
As long as some legitimacy is attached to the Minor and Siegelman convictions, it makes it harder for the defendants to ever seek justice for the unconscionable civil wrongs that have been committed against them.
Meanwhile, our first African-American president seems to think that our citizens cannot be distracted by minor matters regarding justice.
How's that for irony? I wonder what Martin Luther King, who dealt with a few minor matters regarding justice, would think about that. I suspect he would be ashamed--and I bet he would be deeply fearful that much of his work, for which he gave his life, would wind up in vain.
Can you imagine our first black president allowing the spirit of Josef Stalin to flourish in America? Can you imagine our first black president allowing Martin Luther King's legacy to be tarnished by essentially saying, "Matters of justice aren't worthy of our attention at this time"?