Thursday, September 27, 2007

Mississippi Churning, Part X

Let's take a look at another lawsuit the government cited in its case against Mississippi Supreme Court justice Oliver Diaz.

The Paul Minor case involved an attorney and three judges from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, so it's not surprising that some of the underlying lawsuits involve oil rigs, ships, barges, and such.

Accu-Fab v. Richard Ladner, 778 So. 2d 766 (2001) was one such case. Keep in mind that the Accu-Fab case was central to the government's corruption case against Diaz.

One absurdity strikes even the casual observer right off the bat. Diaz did not participate in hearing the case. He recused himself, evidently because Paul Minor represented the heirs of Richard Ladner and Minor had helped secure loans for Diaz. Evidently thinking this could call his impartiality into question, Diaz did not participate. And apparently no evidence was presented that Diaz sought to influence the other justices.

So what was the government thinking by using Accu-Fab in an attempt to show that Diaz acted corruptly? One can only wonder. But even if Diaz had participated, it would be hard to see where the case was wrongly decided, and that's why it's worth our while to check out Accu-Fab. (Plus, I just find these sea-related cases fascinating; guess that comes from watching Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt as a kid.)

Ladner was working as a subcontractor's employee on the roof of a casino barge when he fell through a hole in the roof and later died from his injuries. A jury awarded his heirs $2 million in damages against the general contractor and another of its subcontractors. The Mississippi Court of Appeals first reversed and then affirmed the lower-court ruling. The contractors appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which also upheld the ruling.

Several contractors and subcontractors were involved, which makes things complicated. But here's the gist: A subcontractor was hired to construct the stairwells and stringers on the barge and had requested that the general contractor not install roof decking until the stairs had been installed. Due to time constraints, the general contractor denied the request and went ahead with the roof decking. The subcontractor received permission to cut a hole in the roof in order to facilitate installation of the stairway.

The hole was cut on a Saturday, and the job was supposed to be completed by the end of the weekend. But the prefabricated stairway did not fit properly, so the subcontractor could not complete installation and took the stairway back to its shop for refabrication. Neither the subcontrator nor the contractor placed any warning signs or barricades around the hole. They did nothing to cover the hole in the roof.

On the following Monday morning, Ladner (an iron worker) fell through the hole in the roof and later died of his injuries. Ladner's heirs sued, seeking compensation for his death.

There was little question of liability, and the case mostly involved the contractor and various subcontractors trying to blame one another. The jury wound up attributing 70 percent fault to the contractor, 25 percent to the subcontractor, and 5 percent to Ladner.

An interesting side note: When Ladner was taken to the hospital, a nurse mistakenly thought he was an employee of the contractor and ordered a drug test. It came back positive, and a marijuana cigarette was found in Ladner's pocket at the time of the fall. The trial court excluded the drug evidence because there was no foundation showing that Ladner was actually impaired at the time of the fall. The Supreme Court affirmed on this and all other counts.

Evidence of negligence in Accu-Fab was overwhelming, so even if Diaz had participated in the case, it's hard to imagine how the government hoped to prove corruption based on this case.

The weakness of the case against Diaz borders on the absurd. And we have shown that the cases against attorney Paul Minor and judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield also do not hold up well under scrutiny.

But those are not the only factors that raise questions about the government's prosecution in Mississippi. Was this a "political hit," similar to what appears to have happened with the Don Siegelman case in Alabama? Were the Minor defendants targeted by a Republican-led justice department not because they were corrupt but because they had Democratic leanings? Will Congress include this case in its investigation into selective prosecution by the Bush Justice Department?

We will turn our attention soon to some other interesting questions raised by the Paul Minor case.


Nancy Swan said...

Tidy said...

For one who was never there for a day of this investigation and trial you are rather smug in your assumptions. Of course Diaz ruled on Minor's case, but these were not a part of this case. Diaz took money from those in his court and Minor gave money, big money, truck loads of money to judges who were hearing his cases. This case was tried in federal court, where thankfully bribery of judges is illegal.

If Diaz had been facing this jury instead of the controversial jury in the first trial, he would have been found guilty with the rest of this scum.

And to the taxpayers, Diaz used your money (over $500,000 since this case began) to sit idle in the courtroom and to show up every day to in support of these criminals. He and his family daily hugged and back slapped, and yes, even spied on those considered "unfriendly." During trial, and during testimony, Mississippi justice Oliver Diaz passed notes to Minor (who had been convicted) and to his attorney.

Does not sound like the way a state justice should be behaving. But that is Mississippi justice for you. In Mississippi, not one of these criminals have been sanctioned by the Mississippi Bar nor the Commission on Judicial Performance. Injustice comes at a price the rest of us cannot afford.

legalschnauzer said...

Bribery of judges is illegal in federal and state court. The question is: Was there really bribery or honest-services mail fraud in this case?

My research makes me think there wasn't. You evidently were at the trial, and there is value in that. But there also is value in conducting the research that I've done on the law, procedure etc.

Don't understand a couple of your points:

What was controversial about the first jury, as opposed to the second?

How did Diaz use taxpayer money to attend the trial? Not sure I get that.

Nancy Swan said...

Diaz was being paid to be a state justice not a spectator at this trial. He was suspended for three years while keeping his salary and benefits and while supporting Minor and the other judges.

By the way, nothing beats being there. Do not trust the transcripts or the news accounts to give you the real picture of what went on.

Nancy Swan said...

"'Laws: We know what they are, and what they are worth! They are spider webs for the rich and mighty, steel chains for the poor and weak, fishing nets in the hands of the government.'

In a newspaper interview, juror Shirley Griffin confessed her bias against the government and that she had refused to consider the evidence, 'All that stuff the government brought back there was trash, all them boxes full of papers.' Griffin also defended her refusal to consider the government's case by saying she had made up her mind from the beginning that the defendants were not guilty, "From the first day, I could have taken that pad and wrote not guilty all the way down it." But Griffin took an oath to listen and consider the evidence and to rule without bias. She did not do that, which may have given reason for the other two jurors to refuse to honor their oath as well. If anyone wasted federal taxpayer dollars, it was Juror Griffin who should have never sat on this jury and Judge Wingate who should have removed or sanctioned any jurors who refused to honor their oath to uphold the law.

U. S. Attorney Dunn Lampton's claim that he was satisfied that the trial exposed corruption, even if it did not result in convictions, is not enough. The Justice Department must see that violators of federal laws are brought to account. I sincerely hope the department retries the remaining counts against Minor and Judges John Whitfield and Wes Teel. If it does not, every state justice system is at risk."

gorjus said...

How could Justice Diaz have "ruled on Minor's case," Tiny? When the court decisions clearly indicate him as "Not Participating"?

In other words: shush up, troll.