Perhaps nothing raises questions about the Paul Minor prosecution as much as the corruption case against Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz.
Diaz joined judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield, along with attorney Minor, as defendants in the first trial, which took place in 2005. Diaz was acquitted on all counts, and was acquitted in a subsequent trial on tax-evasion charges. The jury in the first corruption trial acquitted the other three defendants on some charges and failed to reach unanimous verdicts on others, leading to a retrial earlier this year. The three defendants were found guilty on all charges in the retrial.
As we've noted in recent posts, the government's cases against Minor, Teel, and Whitfield do not hold up well under close scrutiny. But the case against Diaz borders on the absurd.
For one, Diaz did not participate in some of the Supreme Court rulings that were at the heart of the government's case. He recused himself from a number of cases involving Minor's clients, and there was no evidence that he attempted to persuade other members of the court to vote Minor's way.
And even in a case where Diaz did participate, the lawsuit at the heart of the government's case against him offers almost no evidence of corruption. In other words, evidence strongly suggests that the court's rulings were correct, regardless of loans Minor had arranged for Diaz (which were allowed under Mississippi law).
Let's take a closer look at one case. In Rex Armistead v. Bill Minor, a law-enforcement officer sued a newspaper columnist for defamation. Columnist Bill Minor, Paul Minor's father, writes a column called "Eyes on Mississippi" that is published in newspapers across the state. Here is a good summary of the case.
In April 1998, Bill Minor wrote a column that was sparked by a story in The Memphis Commercial Appeal about Rex Armistead's service as a paid investigator for the "Arkansas Project," an effort by American Spectator magazine to develop exposes about President Bill Clinton.
Minor's column recounted Armistead's activities dating to the 1960s. Minor described Armistead's "odoriferous background in Mississippi, ranging all the way from head-bashing of black civil-rights workers to concocting a bizarre homosexual scandal in an attempt to defeat a gubernatorial candidate."
As a public figure, Armistead had to show that Bill Minor acted with actual malice, meaning the columnist knew the published statements were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth. Actual malice has long proved to be an extremely difficult standard for public figures to reach in defamation cases, and the Supreme Court (including Diaz) ruled 8-0 that the trial court correctly dismissed Armistead's case.
The Supreme Court found that Bill Minor's column was substantially true and was supported by information from numerous other publications. "While it may be evident that Minor does not hold Armistead in high regard, such feelings do not amount to actual malice," Justice James W. Smith Jr. wrote.
Smith went on to write: "As the United States Supreme Court has noted, 'minor inaccuracies do not amount to falsity so long as the substance, the gist, the sting, of the libelous charge can be justified.' Put another way, the statement is not considered false unless it 'would have a different effect on the mind of the reader from that which the pleaded truth would have produced.' Masson v. New Yorker Magazine Inc. 501 U.S. 517."
To make the government's case against Diaz even weaker, Paul Minor did not even serve as an active attorney in his father's case.
Let's take a look at another lawsuit the government cited in prosecuting Diaz. And this one, like the Bill Minor case, adds to the evidence that the case against Diaz was extraordinarily weak.
The careful reader might ask him or herself: If the government's case was this weak against Diaz, was it really substantially stronger against the other three defendants? Does the weakness of the case against Diaz call into question the entire prosecution? Was this a "political hit," similar to what appears to have happened in the Don Siegelman prosecution in Alabama?