It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate in determining the outcome of the Paul Minor prosecution in Mississippi.
Yes, this was a jury trial. And yes, the jurors found Minor and former judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield guilty on all counts. But Wingate's footprints can be found all over the path that led to conviction.
And keep in mind this was the second trial on the corruption charges, both overseen by Judge Henry Wingate. In the first, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz was acquitted on all charges, while the jury acquitted the other three defendants on some charges and was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on others.
So who is Henry Wingate?
For one, he is a historic figure in Mississippi. He became the first African-American appointed to the state's federal bench in 1985. He was nominated to his seat in the Southern District of Mississippi by President Ronald Reagan.
Wingate was born in Jackson, MS, earned his undergraduate degree at Grinnell College and his law degree at Yale University. He served in the U.S. Navy, worked in private practice, served as both an assistant district attorney and an assistant U.S. attorney, and taught at Mississippi College School of Law.
The Wingate nomination was not greeted with wholehearted support. Critics noted that, prior to his appointment on the federal bench, Wingate never had served as a judge at any level. Critics noted that Reagan passed over numerous veteran state judges in order to appoint Wingate.
Let's see: An African-American with thin credentials, appointed to the bench by a Republican president. A similar storyline would play out on the national stage when Clarence Thomas was nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush.
Is Henry Wingate a Clarence Thomas wannabe? Sources in Mississippi tell me that Wingate was considered for a position on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. President George W. Bush chose someone else this time around, but one must wonder if Wingate still wants that job. And that position is just one step below the U.S. Supreme Court.
Could Wingate solidify his conservative bonafides by seeing to it that a prominent trial lawyer and two "pro-plaintiff" judges wound up in federal prison? One might think that could enhance his status with the Bushies.
So did Judge Henry Wingate act corruptly in his handling of the Paul Minor trial? A strong case could be made that he did. Wingate left behind a litany of strange rulings, enough to make one wonder if political considerations, more than justice, seized the day.
Indications are that the Minor case is attracting the attention of Congressional investigators who are looking into possible selective prosecutions by the Bush Department of Justice.
We already know about Congress' interest in the Don Siegelman (Alabama), Georgia Thompson (Wisconsin), and Cyril Wecht (Pennsylvania) cases. Don't be surprised if the prosecution of Paul Minor, Wes Teel, and John Whitfield joins them.