The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed down an opinion on Friday overturning one of the main charges in the federal case against Mississippi trial attorney Paul Minor and judges John Whitfield and Wes Teel.
The three men were convicted on bribery and honest services fraud charges in 2007, in what many Minor supporters have called political prosecutions. In 2008, the Bush administration even opposed MInor’s request to be released from prison long enough to visit his dying wife.
The Circuit Court began considering Minor’s appeal in May of this year. The three-judge panel expressed skepticism at the governments’ case during oral arguments.
Raw Story’s award-nominated series, The Permanent Republican Majority (see links below), exposed some of the issues in the cases of Minor, Whitfield, and Teel, who were prosecuted starting in 2003 by a Bush-appointed US Attorney, along with former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, Jr.
On July 25, 2003, three months before the Mississippi gubernatorial election, in a case that would stun the legal community, Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., Paul Minor, former chancery court judge Wes Teel and former circuit court judge John Whitfield were indicted on charges of bribery, relating to loan guarantees that Minor had made to the three judges to help defray campaign costs.
There was no state law prohibiting Minor’s contributions, and his trial resulted in an acquittal on some charges and a deadlocked jury on others. However, this trial was immediately followed by the unsealing of fresh charges.
The case was brought the US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, Dunnica Lampton, who had been appointed by President George W. Bush despite being under investigation by the FEC. Minor, Whitfield and Teel were acquitted on some of the charges, Diaz on all of the charges, but all four men were soon indicted again by Lampton.
The prosecution was unable to prove bribery during the first trial. The second jury, however, was instructed by Republican-appointed judge Henry Wingate that quid pro quo need not be proven in order to establish bribery. As a result, Minor, Whitfield and Teel were convicted, though Diaz was again acquitted.
Today’s opinion addresses the primary charge of bribery and the three counts related to it. The secondary charges remain. All three man have had their sentences fully vacated and must appear in front of Judge Wingate to receive new sentences.
The 36-page opinion states:
A jury found all three appellants guilty of conspiracy in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371; mail, wire, and honest services fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1341, 1343, 1346, and 2; and federal pro gram bribery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 666.
Additionally, Minor was convicted of racketeering in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. § 1962. Appellants appeal their convictions and sentences on numerous grounds.
For the following reasons, we VACATE all the convictions related to federal program bribery under 18 U.S.C. § 666, including the conviction of Minor and Teel for conspiracy to violate section 666. We AFFIRM all other convictions, and we REMAND for resentencing as to all appellants in accordance with this opinion.
Columbia law professor Scott Horton has been following this case closely and provided the following comment:
The charges against Minor and the two Mississippi judges, Wes Teel and John Whitfield, fell into two categories: bribery and honest services fraud. The Fifth Circuit’s decision reviews all the facts in the light most favorable to the Justice Department, and it even adopts a tendentious and harsh tone in talking about Minor and his co-defendants. But it also concludes–as I think it had to–that the facts the Justice Department claimed did not make out a case of bribery. That left the honest-services fraud count standing, so the Court vacated the sentences and is referring the case back for resentencing. But I don’t think there will be any need for that. Why? Because on Monday the Supreme Court heard argument on whether the honest-services fraud statute is constitutional. And tallying up the comments made by the justices at the argument, it’s clear that a solid majority of the justices think the honest-services fraud statute is unconstitutional. Moreover, Justice Breyer went out of his way to ridicule the way the Justice Department was applying it, and his criticism, and Justice Scalia’s, goes right to what the prosecutors did in the Minor case. It will take a few months for this to work its way out, but it’s clear that Minor and his co-defendants are on their way home.
This outcome also raises serious questions about the conduct of the trial judge. He failed even to rule on motions for release pending appeal. And it now appears that the convictions had no merit. The result is that these three defendants were forced to serve jail time on meritless convictions, all thanks to Judge Henry Wingate, who sat on their motions for release pending appeal. His conduct handling these cases deserves some very close scrutiny, because it suggests a lack of judicious temperament at nearly every stage.
Minor’s attorney, Hiram Eastland Jr, was not immediately available for comment. According to his office, he is en route to deliver the good news to Minor in person.
Raw Story is working on an in-depth article examining the opinion handed down today more closely.
The Permanent Republican Majority Series
Updates to the PRM series
Larisa Alexandrovna is managing editor of investigative news for Raw Story. Contact: [email protected].
Correction: Judge Wingate’s first name is Henry, not John, as appeared in an earlier edition of this article.