The biggest problems with our justice system involve people, not process. Every now and then, I will discover an element of the law--something from the codes, statutes, procedures, cases--that I take issue with. But for the most part, the actual law makes sense, at least to me. Our system has become a sewer because of the people--lawyers; judges; even clerks, in some cases--who are supposed to apply the law, but instead act in a corrupt fashion.
That's not to say, however, that the system itself doesn't have some perverse qualities. And two of them are on display this week in the Paul Minor case in Mississippi.
Minor, a plaintiff's lawyer known for successfully taking on corporate interests, was convicted on federal corruption charges in April 2007. Wes Teel and John Whitfield, two former state judges, also were convicted in the case, and the men have spent the past three-plus years in federal prison. The Minor story has been a companion case to the Don Siegelman saga in Alabama, two clear examples of political prosecutions during the George W. Bush era.
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the bribery convictions in the Minor case and sent it back to the trial court for reconsideration, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's narrowed definition of honest-services fraud in a case involving former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling.
Attorneys for the Minor defendants filed a motion to vacate the convictions, and given the actions of higher courts, you would think that might have been a chance for U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate to finally get something right. But you would be wrong.
Wingate ruled yesterday that he is returning Minor, Teel, and Whitfield to prison. The three men had asked to be sentenced to time served, a profoundly reasonable request considering that public documents show they never committed a crime in the first place. But Wingate denied the request. He reduced Minor's 11-year sentence to eight years and reduced Teel's sentence by 22 months and Whitfield's by 19 months.
How absurd is this? Consider this from one of our recent posts about the Minor case:
We've shown through probably 100-plus posts here at Legal Schnauzer that Minor, Teel, and Whitfield indeed were convicted for actions that are not criminal--and it was not even a close call, just as in the Siegelman case in Alabama. What was the gist of the charges? Minor had provided loan guarantees to the state judges, which was legal under Mississippi law. The judges later made rulings that were favorable to Minor's clients, and the government contended that was proof of corrupt acts--that Minor received the rulings in exchange for the loan guarantees.
There were several problems, however, with the government's case. One, there was no testimony or evidence that a quid pro quo agreement existed between Minor and the judges. Second, a review of the cases in question show clearly that the judges ruled correctly, based on the facts and law before them. In other words, Minor's clients prevailed because they deserved to prevail--not because of any hanky panky behind the scenes. Expert witnesses were prepared to testify to this effect at trial, but Wingate did not allow it. In essence, the Minor defendants were not allowed to put on a defense, and Wingate's jury instructions simply were concocted from the bench, having little to do with actual relevant law.
Folks who are interested in background on the Minor case might want to check out these two posts:
An Inside Look at the Dirty Work of Federal Prosecutors in the Age of Bush
Josef Stalin's Spirit Lives On Through the Paul Minor Case in Mississippi
As for newer material, get a load of this report last week in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger:
U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate heard arguments on the defense motions but said if there were an error in the judicial bribery trial, it was harmless.
"The jury found facts establishing guilt," Wingate said.
Errors that caused three innocent men to be sent to federal prison are "harmless"? And how did the jury manage to find facts that established guilt? Why, Wingate gave them jury instructions that were not remotely correct under the law.
How screwy were Wingate's jury instructions? We've addressed that in a previous post. Here was a key portion of Wingate's instruction:
You can search law books until your fingers bleed, and you will not find that description of bribery or honest-services fraud. That's because it doesn't exist. Henry Wingate made it up, and the Minor defendants were convicted for a "crime" that is a figment of a judge's imagination.
"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."
What about those perverse qualities that are built into our "justice" system? Here are two big ones:
(1) A judge gets a second chance to screw up--When an appellate court finds an error at the trial-court level, it returns the case to the same judge who likely is responsible for the screw up in the first place. Does that make a lick of sense? Of course not. In the Minor case, the Fifth Circuit, in essence, found, "Judge Wingate, you screwed this up." So what did the Fifth Circuit do? It sent the case right back to Judge Wingate, who now is pissed off because he's been reversed. Works out real well for the defendants, especially those who were convicted based on jury instructions that describe a "crime" that does not exist under the law.
(2) The value of remorse--One way to get a sentence reduced is to go in front of a judge and act contrite about having broken the law. But what if you didn't break the law? What if the actual law was not even presented to the jury that convicted you? What if you know all of that? You are supposed to be remorseful about something you didn't do?
That, too, is at play in the Minor case. Consider this from a story about Wingate's most recent ruling:
The government had initially requested maximum sentences for the three men. Wingate said he would not do that, resentencing all three to terms that were less that those suggested in federal sentencing guidelines.
Wingate said he impressed by the contrition shown by the three. “You have with you conduct earned a reduction” in the sentence, Wingate said.
The Minor defendants, understandably, are desperate to get out of prison. And they know how the game is played, so they are apologizing for "crimes" they did not commit.
That's all part of the "theater" involved in our justice system. And it can't get much more perverse than what we are seeing in the Paul Minor case.