Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Siegelman Judgment is Vacated--What Does It Mean?

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning vacated a judgment that upheld the convictions of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and codefendant Richard Scrushy, ordering the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to review the case in light of last week's ruling on honest-services fraud.

What does it all mean? There is no simple answer to that question. But it probably means that Siegelman and Scrushy, the former CEO of HealthSouth, stand a heightened chance of having their convictions overturned. It should mean that Mississippi attorney Paul Minor, and codefendants Wes Teel and John Whitfield, stand a significantly heightened chance of having their convictions overturned. And it means Siegelman supporters probably will want to bone up on a case called Yates v. United States, 354 U.S. 298 (1957).

On the down side, today's Supreme Court finding is, in a sense, a smokescreen. It might lead to long-delayed justice for victims of political prosecutions. But it does not address the real problem--that corrupt federal prosecutors and judges caused this grave injustice to happen.

From a Siegelman standpoint, today's ruling is filled with irony. That's because the 11th Circuit already has overturned the honest-services fraud convictions against him--although those convictions stand against Scrushy.

The issues remaining against Siegelman involve bribery and obstruction of justice. So how could last week's Supreme-Court ruling on honest-services fraud--involving former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling and former media magnate Conrad Black--help Siegelman?

Well, that's where the Yates case enters the picture. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the case in her majority opinion last week. And here is the key general finding in Yates:

Constitutional error occurs when a jury is instructed on alternative theories of guilt and returns a general verdict that may rest on a legally invalid theory.

It's undisputed that the Siegelman jury was instructed on theories involving honest-services fraud. But the U.S. Supreme Court has found that theory now is legally invalid. Yates states that such an instruction, in essence, "muddies the water" of a case and raises issues of constitutional error.

Here is the reference to Yates in Ginsburg's opinion in the Conrad Black case, which is styled Black v. the United States:

On appeal, Defendants urged the invalidity of the jury instructions on honest-services fraud. Under the rule declared by this Court in Yates v. United States, 354 U. S. 298, 312 (1957), a general verdict may be set aside “where the verdict is supportable on one ground, but not on another, and it is impossible to tell which ground the jury selected.” Relying on that rule, Defendants urged reversal of their mail-fraud convictions.

While this all sounds like good news for Siegelman and Scrushy, here is one major word of caution: Yates is subject to a "harmless error" analysis. In other words, on remand, the 11th Circuit could find that the invalid instruction on honest services did not have a major impact on the verdict. Given that the 11th Circuit already has proven unfriendly to the defendants in the case, that certainly could happen.

Today's finding definitely should be good news for the Minor defendants. That's because their bribery convictions were overturned by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and fraud is the central issue remaining. Based on the Supreme Court's new definition of honest-services fraud, the chances of those verdicts being overturned should be high.

On the down side, however, we do not even know if the Supreme Court will hear the Minor case, and Raw Story reports that a notice is not expected until October. Also, the Fifth Circuit, much like the 11th Circuit in the Siegelman case, already has proven unfriendly to the defendants.

That brings us back to the real issue in these cases: The district courts and circuit courts have acted in an abominably corrupt manner--and yet the Supreme Court keeps remanding issues back to courts that already have proven they can't rule lawfully in these cases.

Today's news is encouraging in the sense that the Siegelman and Minor defendants now stand a better chance of being freed. But they never should have been in prison in the first place. Ethical prosecutors, not under the influence of the corrupt Bush Justice Department, never would have brought these cases. Under the law, there was never any bribery or honest-services fraud from the outset. If prosecutors somehow did manage to bring the cases, ethical district judges would have kicked them out long before they ever reached a jury.

That's not just our opinion, by the way. We have written numerous posts that conclusively show that both the Siegelman and Minor cases were based on unlawful jury instructions and other wrongheaded rulings by the trial judges--Mark Fuller and Henry Wingate, respectively. Here are links to just a couple of many posts that show the convictions in both cases were unlawful:

How the 11th Circuit Cheated Don Siegelman: A Summary

The Paul Minor Ruling: More Evidence of Our Crumbling Justice System

Consider what these defendants have lost while corrupt prosecutors and judges played games with their lives. Just consider this curious timeline from the Siegelman case:

Conviction, June 29, 2006

Sentencing, June 29, 2007

Supreme Court Order, June 29, 2010

How ironic is that? Siegelman and Scrushy have lost four years of their lives--and that doesn't count all of the headaches they went through leading up to the trial. The same general time frame applies to the Minor case, although it has been even worse for those defendants. They had to go through two trials because the first resulted in a hung jury.

Paul Minor, in fact, has now served four years in federal prison. He was not allowed to attend his wife's funeral, nor the wedding of his only son.

All for alleged "crimes" that he did not commit--and, in fact, do not exist under the law. We say that because the Minor defendants were convicted on jury instructions that Judge Henry Wingate pulled out of thin air. They had little, if anything, to do with the actual relevant law.

Today is a step forward for justice in the Siegelman and Minor cases. But when will those responsible for these travesties be held accountable? And how will these defendants ever be made remotely whole?

Until those questions are addressed, justice remains a long way off.


B. Batard said...

Thank you Roger. Those of us who live in the "other Alabama", that is, in Central Pennsylvania congratulate you on your fine work in keeping the spotlight in this case and your having been mentioned at Harper's No Comment certifies your street creds.

We have a Professor at Bloomsburg University whose liberal thoughts are somewhwat dissimilar to the conservative area that is in Central PA, but he is allowed to work and do as he likes as Pennsylvania seems to be enlightened enough to at least allow differences of opinion to take place. Alabama must be a stark and darkly distant kind of conservatism, the kind that I was reminded of when a Southern old time farmer told me that the meanest people from the German POW camps were the SS. And no doubt to some Southern Farmers, perhaps Miss Lillian was an outlier, as I am told that many POW camps had SS who told Southerners that they, the Southerners, were just like the Germans, in that they treated blacks similar to the ways that Germans treated Jews. And shortly thereafter Harry Truman necessarily integrated the Armed Forces as even the evil SS men knew who to make an argument and make their point. Much to the grumbling of some southern farmers then who held on for a while longer to their resistance to freedoms for all. We do wish for you similar circumstances to our beloved Walter Brasch, who lightens up the lamp of freedom in the conservative area of our state, and no one would seek to silence him hear. May Alabama conservatives eventually come around to the point of letting "liberal" proffesors speak their minds. But if the racism that long existed there evinces, it may be a while. But in time you too will be free.


Thanks for all you did.

legalschnauzer said...

B. Batard:

Thanks so much for your encouraging words. And thanks for the link to the Walter Brasch Web site. His work might be new to many of our readers in the South. But I hope folks will check him out. His book, "Sinking the Ship of State," about the George W. Bush presidency sounds particularly interesting. Here is what some reviewers have said about it:


Anonymous said...

Wow! It appears that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case IF the 11th does not do the right thing, which would be totally uncharacteristic of them, as they are part of the problem, not the solution. In the meantime, it makes me wonder if the US Attorney's actions of wearing them down and impoverishing them was motivated by their concern that as long as S & S were able to fight back, their actions were at risk of exposure. There is no way to right this wrong, to repair all the damage that has been done. How do you give someone back over four years of their lives? I hope they successfully demand prosecution and sue the hell out of the ones responsible, starting with Alice Martin. And KUDOS to The Schnauzer!

Robby Scott Hill said...

Yes, thanks so much Roger! This chapter of history is coming to an end. Hopefully, Don Siegelman will have all counts of his conviction overturned. I'm afraid that as soon as The GOP regains control of Congress, they will write a new criminal statute to replace "honest services fraud." Every time a drug law was successfully challenged in the courts, Republicans & Dixiecrats came back with a "newer, better" drug law. The next liberal Governor of Alabama is just as likely to fall victim to the next generation honest services fraud law. The Neocons truly believe that the end justifies the means and they will use any tool at their disposal to remove anyone who gets in the way of their hold on money and power.

Tamarah Grimes said...

Great job as usual! I agree that this great news for victims of selective and political prosecutions, but does nothing to address the underlying ethical and Constitutional issues.
These prosecutors from DOJ and Public Integrity need to be held accountable for their actions, as does Leura Canary.
Instead, Canary's still on the Republican holdover dole, ticking off the days toward sufficient time in service for her federal pension - or to remain U.S. Attorney forever once the Republicans regain control in 2012.