Whenever Alabama winds up near the bottom in a national quality-of-life ranking--and it happens a lot--our citizens tend to exhale and exclaim, "Whew, thank God for Mississippi!"
There's a good reason for that: If Alabama ranks No. 49 in an issue involving, say, health status, education, or justice, you can bet that Mississippi probably ranks No. 50.
I recently discovered a new reason to say, "Thank God for Mississippi!" It didn't seem possible that the mainstream media (MSM) in any state could be worse than ours here in Alabama. But based on last weeks' coverage of the latest appeal in the Paul Minor case, Mississippi appears to "have us beat."
Albert Alschuler, a national expert on legal issues connected to honest-services fraud, filed a brief on December 31 with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking review of the Minor case in light of the high court's 2010 ruling in a case involving former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling.
The court found in Skilling v. United States, 130 S. Ct. 2896 (2010) that the federal honest-services statutes reach only cases of alleged bribery and kickbacks. Skilling was decided after Minor's original petition for certiorari review had been filed. As such, Alschuler argues, it represents "an intervening change in law" that merits review under Supreme Court Rule 10(a).
Paul Minor, one of the most successful plaintiffs' attorneys in Mississippi history, was convicted on Bush-era corruption charges, along with former state judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield. Minor and Whitfield remain in federal prison, while Teel was released last year after completing his sentence.
The Minor case was one of the most high-profile federal prosecutions in Mississippi over the past decade. And it raises critical issues about the U.S. election process, including the First Amendment right to financially support the candidates of our choice. But you would never know that from last week's coverage about the Minor appeal in the Mississippi MSM.
First, a reasonable person might expect that Mississippi newspapers would consider the Minor case important enough to assign staff reporters to the latest story. That would seem especially true in Biloxi, where Minor live and worked, and in Jackson, where the trial was conducted. But our research indicates both the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Jackson Clarion-Ledger used a wire report provided by Associated Press.
A reporter named Jack Elliott Jr. wrote the Associated Press story out of Jackson, and he did not distinguish himself with this effort. Perhaps Elliott has done fine work on other stories, and in his defense, news about the Minor appeal was released on December 31--and that means the AP bureau probably had a skeleton crew working on New Year's Eve. Whatever caused it, Elliott's story was a sorry piece of journalism that did almost nothing to help readers understand a case that has national implications.
The incompetence at the Biloxi newspaper started right off the bat, with a headline that read "Minor Appeals Miss. Sentence to US Supreme Court." (The AP writer, by the way, almost certainly did not write that headline; it probably was written by someone on the newspaper's copy desk.) How many ways does that title get it wrong? First, it was a federal sentence, not a state sentence under Mississippi law. More importantly, Minor's brief makes it clear that he is not just appealing his sentence; he is seeking to have his convictions overturned on all counts. (The full brief can be viewed at the end of this post.)
The brief states throughout that the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals holdings on the case merit "summary reversal." That means, according to Minor's counsel, the convictions are unlawful and are due to be overturned. Here is a reference from page 4 of the brief:
Skilling's holding was clear: The law of honest-services fraud does not vary from state to state. The Fifth Circuit's disregard of this holding warrants summary reversal.
Inexplicably, the AP story makes no mention of the ruling in Skilling. The first sentence in the "Statement of the Case" found in Minor's brief states that the appeal is based primarily on a change in the law on honest-services fraud, brought about Skilling.
It's the crux of the entire appeal. Failing to address that is like writing on World War II without mentioning Adolph Hitler. In fact, we see no signs that the AP reporter even looked at the latest Minor brief. His report makes multiple references to "Minor has argued . . ." or "Minor said . . ."; those are apparent references to issues raised in earlier court documents.
It appears Elliott based his story on clips that are several years old and do not address the issues that Alschuler now has placed squarely before the nation's highest court.
Alschuler spends considerable time in his brief on the most important issue in the Minor case--flawed jury instructions. Minor's counsel shows how U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate repeatedly butchered jury instructions in the trial court. And Alschuler lays out tortured arguments on the issue before the Fifth Circuit that are downright comical.
The take-home point is this: Jury instructions in the Minor case were hopelessly wrong before the Skilling ruling was issued; they are even more off target in the post-Skilling environment.
That means the Minor defendants were convicted of "crimes" that do not exist under actual law. It means their convictions are due to be overturned across the board, even without taking Skilling into consideration.
You might think it is important for the public to understand issues that caused three citizens to be imprisoned because of convictions that are not even close to being lawful. You might think the mainstream press in Mississippi would take seriously its obligation to educate readers on matters that go straight to constitutional protections.
But based on Associated Press coverage of the Paul Minor appeal--and the sorry efforts of other reporters and editors in Mississippi--you would be wrong.
Paul Minor-SCOTUS Petition2