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Why is Paul Minor Still Behind Bars?

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Brendan DeMelle
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Originally published at Huffington Post.

In a recent unanimous decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned federal bribery charges against prominent Mississippi trial attorney Paul Minor, offering a ray of hope that Minor will soon be a free man.

Minor has spent the past three years a political prisoner, left to rot in jail after partisan operatives in the Bush administration targeted him for being the top funder of Democratic candidates in Mississippi. Minor was convicted in 2007 along with John Whitfield and Walter "Wes" Teel, the Mississippi Democratic judges he was wrongly accused of bribing through campaign contributions that were perfectly legal and common practice among donors of all political persuasions in the state. Among the charges against Minor were federal bribery and honest services fraud, for which Minor received a draconian 11-year sentence that he is now serving at federal prison camp in Pensacola, Florida.

Minor and the judges appealed immediately, arguing that jury instructions were botched in the trial, allowing jurors to incorrectly convict without evidence of a clear and unambiguous exchange of official acts for the contributions, or quid pro quo, between the judges and Minor.

In the wake of the Fifth Circuit ruling, which reversed the federal bribery charges, Minor will now have his case sent back to the lower court for re-sentencing.

That's great news for justice in America, but the fact is that Paul Minor should be at home with his family already. By knocking out the key charge that was misused to convict Minor for federal bribery, the Fifth Circuit court has provided more than ample proof that Minor raised substantial questions on appeal, as his attorneys have long argued. The law clearly states that an appellant deserves to be free on bail awaiting the outcome of his appeals process if substantial questions have been raised.

The Justice Department, both under the Bush administration and now under President Obama, has failed to release Minor despite this obvious discrepancy. The DOJ's disregard for Minor's right to release has had severe consequences on his life.

Over the past three years that Minor spent in prison, he endured the loss of his wife Sylvia to brain cancer, a painful ordeal in which he was denied release to be by his wife's side multiple times by the Bureau of Prisons, a subordinate arm of the DOJ. Paul's right to comfort Sylvia, to say goodbye in her final hours, and even to attend her funeral to deliver the eulogy he wrote about their 40-year marriage together, was stripped by the DOJ. Minor also remained behind bars when his son Paul Jr. was married in October, yet another important family moment this proud father will never get back.

Why was Paul Minor left rotting in jail while Sylvia passed away and Paul Jr. married? And now, with the federal bribery charges tossed out, why is he still behind bars today?

Attorney General Eric Holder had barely gotten his office set up when he ordered the Justice Department to drop charges against former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens based on prosecutorial misconduct, vowing to send a message that misconduct would not be tolerated in President Obama's DOJ.

Yet the American justice system's abhorrent treatment of Paul Minor has often been far more absurd, consistently unjust and shockingly inhumane. So why is Paul Minor continually left to rot in Pensacola federal prison camp?

Former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, convicted on similar honest services charges as Paul Minor, was granted release pending his own appeal and given the chance to reunite with his family as he continues to argue his innocence. Why has Paul Minor not received the same treatment while his appeal progresses?

Those are all valid questions that Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department must ultimately answer, as soon as possible for Mr. Minor's sake.

For those not familiar with the background of this case, Paul Minor's "crime" was that he took a particular interest in the outcome of judicial races in his home state of Mississippi, an obvious concern for a trial lawyer hoping to ensure that his clients would face only fair judges. As long as judges are elected, they will rely on campaign contributions from all vested interests, including lawyers, and those contributors have every right to donate within the bounds of campaign spending laws. As the Jackson Free Press correctly stated in a recent editorial, "critics scream that Minor was out to install pro-plaintiff judges, and they may have a point--but that, in itself, was not illegal."

Apparently, Paul Minor's legal campaign contributions were viewed through a different lens. The make-up of the Mississippi judiciary also happened to be of high importance to powerful business interests, most notably the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which sunk millions into efforts to install industry-friendly judges throughout the South. Taking down a man like Paul Minor - the top funder of the Democratic judges whom the Chamber and its ilk despise was a major coup for Big Business and its friends in Washington during the Bush administration.

The impact of Minor's conviction was felt immediately, casting a chilling effect on Democratic fundraising, particularly among judicial candidates. Many traditional Democratic donors now shy away from the contested races for fear of ending up in Minor's shoes.

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Brendan DeMelle is a freelance writer and researcher. He has served as Research Associate for Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., researcher for Laurie David and StopGlobalWarming.org and others. He graduated from St. Lawrence University with a BA in (more...)
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Why is Paul Minor Still Behind Bars?

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