Judge denies motion to separate trials of Teel and Whitfield

Published 3:34 pm Thursday, October 5, 2006

Former Gulf Coast judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield will be tried together, along with attorney Paul Minor, in an upcoming judicial bribery case.

U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate on Wednesday denied Teel’s request to be tried separately from Whitfield.

Wingate also moved the start of the trial back from Oct. 23 to Nov. 16.

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Teel is a former chancery judge and Whitfield is a former circuit judge. The two men are on the opposite sides of another emotional court case — the federal trial of Teel’s grown son, former Harrison County deputy Ryan Teel, in the beating death of a man being booked into the county jail in Gulfport on Feb. 4.

Whitfield and his attorney in the judicial bribery case, Michael Crosby, together have filed a civil lawsuit against Ryan Teel in the beating death of Jessie Lee Williams Jr. Ryan Teel also has been indicted on federal criminal charges.

Wes Teel has said Whitfield and Crosby are viciously attacking his son, including by posting a Web site that compares Williams’ death to the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

During a pretrial hearing in the judicial bribery case Wednesday, Wes Teel’s attorney, George Lucas, argued that his client should not be forced to sit at the same courtroom table as Crosby and Whitfield. Wes Teel did not appear in court Wednesday.

Wingate asked whether Lucas’ handling of the case would be affected by bad feelings among the men, and Lucas said it would not.

“I hope I’m professional enough to work under any circumstances,” Lucas said.

Wingate on Wednesday said questionnaires for potential jurors will be mailed Oct. 12 and due back by Nov. 9. He said jury selection will start Nov. 16, and he anticipates opening arguments will start Nov. 27, the Monday after Thanksgiving.

It will be the second trial in the case. After a three-month trial, jurors in August 2005 were unable to reach verdicts on charges against Minor, Whitfield and Teel, although jurors acquitted Minor of some charges and State Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. of all charges.

The jury pool in the upcoming trial will be drawn from the Jackson area, as was the pool last year.

Wingate said he believes the new trial will be shorter than the first one, partly because Diaz is no longer included and partly because the case has been tried before.

After the hearing Wednesday, Minor and Whitfield hugged loosely, patting each other on the back.

Wingate on Sept. 15 ordered Minor to return to jail while awaiting the second trial after finding that Minor had violated conditions for his pretrial release.

In August, Wingate had set limits on Minor after the attorney was discharged from a Brandon residential alcohol treatment center. Minor, 60, was to be confined at his mother-in-law’s home in Baton Rouge, La.

Minor’s attorney, Brad Pigott, asked Wingate on Wednesday to consider letting Minor out of the Madison County Jail. Wingate interrupted Pigott and told him to make the request in writing because Dave Fulcher, the assistant U.S. attorney who previously had argued in the confinement question, was not in the courtroom.

Another assistant U.S. attorney, Ruth Morgan, told Wingate that Minor’s defense has asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the Sept. 15 ruling that sent Minor to jail.

Minor sat quietly in court Wednesday, wearing gray slacks, a navy blue blazer, blue dress shirt and red and blue tie. He occasionally took notes and consulted with this team.