|Paul Minor and John Whitfield|
How perverse is the U.S. "justice" system? Consider this: When an appellate court finds an error at the trial-court level, it returns the case to the same judge who likely is responsible for the screw up in the first place.
That scenario is playing out now in the case of Mississippi lawyer Paul Minor--probably the second best-known political prosecution of the George W. Bush era, after the Don Siegelman case in Alabama.
U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate, who is directly responsible for three innocent men being imprisoned in the Minor case, is expected to rule shortly on a motion to vacate the convictions. Will Wingate finally get something right, in a case he has butchered from Biloxi to Holly Springs? He might, given that the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered resentencing after throwing out the convictions on bribery. And convictions on honest-services fraud appear to be teetering in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling--in a case involving former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling--that significantly narrowed the definition of the crime.
Sadly, the Minor case never should have come down to appellate rulings and new interpretations of established federal statutes. The government never had a case against Minor, a prominent trial lawyer and generous donor to Democratic candidates, and former state judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield. But a Bush-appointed prosecutor pursued the case through hung juries and multiple trials and finally got convictions--with the help of numerous unlawful rulings from Wingate, a Reagan appointee to the federal bench.
Want a nice summary of the Minor case? Consider the words of Minor defense lawyer David Debold in a report from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger:
Debold said he knows it's not easy for a judge to reverse a case this late but it's the right thing to do in the wake of the high court decision limiting the honest services statute.
That ruling, he said, "creates real doubts whether Mr. Minor and the judges were convicted on something that is not a crime."
We've shown through probably 100-plus posts here at Legal Schnauzer that Minor, Teel, and Whitfield indeed were convicted for actions that are not criminal--and it was not even a close call, just as in the Siegelman case in Alabama. What was the gist of the charges? Minor had provided loan guarantees to the state judges, which was legal under Mississippi law. The judges later made rulings that were favorable to Minor's clients, and the government contended that was proof of corrupt acts--that Minor received the rulings in exchange for the loan guarantees.
There were several problems, however, with the government's case. One, there was no testimony or evidence that a quid pro quo agreement existed between Minor and the judges. Second, a review of the cases in question show clearly that the judges ruled correctly, based on the facts and law before them. In other words, Minor's clients prevailed because they deserved to prevail--not because of any hanky panky behind the scenes. Expert witnesses were prepared to testify to this effect at trial, but Wingate did not allow it. In essence, the Minor defendants were not allowed to put on a defense, and Wingate's jury instructions simply were concocted from the bench, having little to do with actual relevant law.
Here are two posts that provide a summary of the rampant wrongdoing in the Minor case:
An Inside Look at the Dirty Work of Federal Prosecutors in the Age of Bush
Josef Stalin's Spirit Lives On Through the Paul Minor Case in Mississippi
Some semblance of justice might finally be achieved in the Minor case. But the three defendants have lost years of their lives that they will never get back. They also have lost huge chunks of money in legal fees, and one can only wonder if they will be able to recover some of that through civil actions against individuals who drove the bogus prosecution from the outset.
For now, the case remains in the hand of a district judge who has unquestionably acted in a corrupt manner. And thanks to the concept known as judicial immunity, Wingate probably will never be held accountable.
If the Obama Department of Justice had a spine, it almost certainly could show that Henry Wingate and prosecutors engaged in criminal activity. But that would involve "looking backwards," and we know the Obama DOJ mustn't do that.