Upon first trying to grasp Judge Henry Wingate's actions in the Paul Minor case, one might think the judge was looking to Mississippi state law because federal courts in the Fifth Circuit had been unclear on bribery law.
That does not appear to be the case.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit could hardly be more clear than it was in U.S. v. Tomblin, 46 F. 3d 1369 (1995). We've already noted, in Bribery: A Primer, that there are two primary bribery statutes under federal law--18 U.S. Code 201, which has come to be seen as involving bribery of federal officials, and 18 U.S. Code 666 (federal-funds bribery), which can involve bribery of state officials. U.S. v. Mariano 983 F. 2d 1350 (1993) states that the two statutes virtually mirror one another, with the only differences being on matters of scope and jurisdiction.
Tomblin was a 201 case, but it clearly states the fundamental elements of a bribery case in the Fifth Circuit, and these elements hold true for a 666 case, such as the Minor prosecution.
The Tomblin court wrote: "Under the bribery statutes, the government must prove a quid pro quo, that is, that the official took money in return for an exercise of his official power. In order to convict a briber, the government must prove that the accused intended to bribe the official" For good measure, the court cited a U.S. Supreme Court case, McCormick v. United States, 500 U.S. 257 (1991).
Pretty clear language, wouldn't you say? So why was Judge Wingate messing around in Mississippi state law?
The Legal Schnauzer can come to only one answer: Federal law did not look good for the prosecution.
In one of our first posts on the Minor case, we noted that no one testified at trial to the existence of any agreement that the judges would give Minor favorable treatment. No letter, note, or e-mail, no physical evidence at all, was presented suggesting such an agreement. In other words, the government had zero evidence of a "something-for-something" transaction, the kind required under federal law--even in the Fifth Circuit.
No wonder Mississippi's relatively expansive bribery law, not requiring a quid pro quo, sounded good to the prosecution--and evidently to Wingate.
We will look in a moment at some possible motivations behind Wingate's odd handling of the Minor case. But first, let's go beyond his rulings on expert testimony and jury instructions to examine some more ingredients in a truly unsavory trial.