Democrat claiming political prosecution appeals decision to prohibit visit to dying wife
Lindsay Beyerstein
Published: Friday August 8, 2008

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The onetime Mississippi trial heavyweight Paul Minor -- once the largest Democratic donor in the state of Mississippi -- has filed a brief appealing a Justice Department move to prohibit him from visiting his dying wife.

Minor's attorneys filed a brief with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last week in an attempt to get their client released from federal prison pending his appeal.

The filing is only the latest salvo in an ongoing legal battle aimed at Minor's release, but the stakes are especially high now because Minor’s wife, Sylvia, has terminal cancer, and Minor hopes to be released to care for her.

“Even if these prosecutors were so cold hearted and so focused on getting Paul, they should have been humane enough to agree to some release terms that would enable him to be with his very sick wife,” said Abbe Lowell, Minor’s attorney.

Lowell stresses that time is of the essence because Mrs. Minor has only weeks or months to live. “Her cancer is spreading everywhere,” he says.

The filing by Minor’s attorneys came in response to a motion filed by prosecutors arguing Minor should not be released because he has previously violated the terms of his probation. Prosecutors agree that Minor’s wife’s condition is worthy of sympathy, but maintain that the law does not allow the judge to take compassion into account when ruling on Minor’s release.

“Minor's actions and his actions alone are responsible for his imprisonment, and no amount of sympathy can form a legal basis for his release from prison,” the prosecutors’ motion states.

Lowell said that Minor has also applied to the Bureau of Prisons for a compassionate furlough to visit his wife but that the Bureau has yet to reply.

A spokesperson for the Bureau initially declined to comment on the status of Minor’s furlough application on the grounds that the information is not public. A second spokesperson, Felicia Ponce, explained, “Each case is evaluated individually, so there’s not a specific timeframe that I can indicate a request will be approved.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment.

The prosecution argues that Minor should not be released because he has violated the terms of release agreements before. He was forced to receive treatment for a drinking problem after being thrown out of a hotel bar in April 2006, while free on a pre-trial bond. As a result, his bond was revoked and he was sent for inpatient alcohol treatment.

After completing his treatment, Minor broke the rules again by leaving his house without permission to consult an expert about hurricane damage to his home. The meeting took place at a restaurant where alcohol was served, although no one alleges that Minor was drinking. Minor says he contacted his probation officer beforehand, seeking permission to attend the meeting, but received no reply. The restaurant was within walking distance of Minor’s home.

As was reported earlier by RAW STORY, prosecutors claim that even though Minor is a non-violent offender who has never been deemed a flight risk, he is too dangerous to be let out of prison, because he is an alcoholic and because he violated the terms of his pre-trial release.

Minor’s lawyers stress that their client has been sober for 27 months and that his substance abuse counselor pronounced his prospects for recovery to be “excellent.”

Both sides in the dispute agree that Minor’s alcoholism contributed to his rule-breaking, but disagree about what that means for his future prospects. The prosecution contends that Minor’s newfound sobriety doesn’t mitigate the danger he poses to the community because the unauthorized meeting happened after he completed his treatment. They worry that Minor is still subject to many of the stresses that his lawyers blame for his earlier rule-breaking, including his wife’s illness and the prospect of more prison time.

Minor’s lawyers say that their client has earned another chance.

“[Minor] was never found to be a flight risk and the issue of danger was with his alcoholism, for which there is now a clear record of improvement and which could be redressed through numerous conditions that could be imposed on release,” the defense reply brief states.

Minor admits that he broke the rules. The most serious of these infractions took place while Minor was an untreated alcoholic who was grappling with his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, the destruction of his Biloxi home by Hurricane Katrina, and his second criminal trial.

Those missteps earned him two years in jail. In the reply brief, his lawyers note that this penalty is more than enough to teach their client to respect the court’s orders.

“There are of course conditions of release that would ensure that he complied with court order, so that he's not a danger to anyone,” Lowell said.

Minor’s longtime friend and spiritual advisor, Right Reverend Joe Morris Doss, a retired Episcopalian bishop in residence at Grace Church in New Orleans, believes that Minor is ready to rejoin the community.

“[Paul] has courageously examined his life, confessed his personal failings and faults, and is trying to choose who he wants to be from this point on in his life,” Doss wrote in an email to RAW STORY.

In 2007, Minor, a wealthy Gulf Coast plaintiff’s attorney and major Democratic donor, was sentenced to 11 years in prison and a $4.25 million fine in connection with campaign loans he guaranteed for two Mississippi judicial candidates who later ruled on cases involving Minor’s clients. The government alleges that these loans were bribes to ensure favorable rulings.

This was Minor’s second trial on charges stemming from loan guarantees to judges. The first time around, the government failed to obtain convictions against Minor or any of the three judicial candidates who accepted loans from him. One of the judges, Oliver Diaz, was fully exonerated at that first trial, but the government retried Minor and the other two judges.

Many observers suspect that politics played a role in the federal cases against Minor.

At Minor’s second trial, Judge Harry T. Wingate of the Southern District Court of Mississippi revised the burden of proof downward and excluded evidence that Minor’s lawyers had been allowed to present at the first trial. The first set of jurors had been told that for them to find the defendant guilty of bribery, the government had to prove that that the loan guarantees were part of a quid pro quo — an exchange of campaign money for future favorable rulings. The second jury was given a looser definition of bribery.

Judges are elected in Mississippi and it is not illegal for attorneys to contribute to judicial campaigns, through either direct donations or loan guarantees. At the time Minor guaranteed the loans, lawyers contributed more money to judicial campaigns than any other group. Minor himself had been guaranteeing loans to judicial candidates for years

The initial indictments against Minor were released just in time to become fodder for the successful gubernatorial campaign of Republican Haley Barbour. The news was politically explosive because Minor had donated tens of thousands of dollars to Barbour’s Democratic opponent, former Governor Ronnie Musgrove.

The US Attorney who brought the original case against Minor, Dunnica Lampton, is a Bush appointee with two unsuccessful Republican congressional bids under his belt.

Lampton and his office are currently being investigated by the Justice Department over allegations of selective prosecution.