Sentencing for Miss. judicial bribery case extends to second day

Published 4:35 pm Friday, August 3, 2007

Convicted Gulf Coast attorney Paul Minor struggled to hold back tears Thursday as character witnesses testified about how he has helped his country, his community, his clients and his family over the years.

Minor and two former judges from Harrison County, Wes Teel and John Whitfield, will be back in federal court Friday for the second day of their sentencing hearing in a judicial bribery case. The three were convicted in March.

Minor was found guilty on charges ranging from racketeering to bribery. He faces up to 95 years in prison.

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Teel and Whitfield were found guilty of mail fraud and bribery for accepting the bribes. Teel faces up to 25 years in prison, and Whitfield faces up to 50 years.

U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate is considering letters and testimony from supporters of the three men.

Minor’s father is longtime Mississippi political journalist Bill Minor, who is 85.

“Thinking of the possibility that I could die with him in prison — it haunts me so bad that I can’t sleep many nights,” Bill Minor told Wingate from the witness stand.

Jim Watkins, a petroleum engineer from Houston, Texas, testified about how he and Paul Minor served together as U.S. Army intelligence officers for a year during the Vietnam War, service for which Paul Minor was awarded a Bronze Star.

“He protected my back in Vietnam, and I’m more than happy to do the same for him today,” Watkins said.

Attorneys for Teel and Whitfield did not call character witnesses to testify. Instead, each made a 15-minute video presentation to the court.

Whitfield’s video showed a montage of photos — him in the roles of Eagle Scout, father and judge — as Ray Charles’ rendition of “America” played in the background.

Teel’s video was an interview of Teel and his wife, Myrna, talking about her multiple sclerosis.

“If he weren’t here to take care of me, I don’t know what I would do,” Myrna Teel said in the film.

Paul Minor, who had amassed a fortune from asbestos, tobacco, medical malpractice and car safety litigation, appeared in court Thursday in an orange jumpsuit from the Madison County jail, where he has been held since September after Wingate found he had violated terms of bond by drinking excessively and not abiding by terms of his house arrest.

Wingate granted a request by Paul Minor’s high-profile Washington attorney, Abbe Lowell, to have shackles removed from Minor’s hands so Minor could assist Lowell during the hearing.

Minor was first accused of bribery in 2003. At that time, he was also accused of bribing Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr.

Diaz was tried with Minor, Whitfield and Teel in U.S. District Court in Jackson in 2005. A jury cleared Diaz of all charges and deadlocked on some charges against the other three. Diaz was among those sitting in the courtroom behind Minor’s family to watch the sentencing hearing Thursday.

With Diaz out of the case, the others were tried again and convicted of all 11 counts in the indictment.

Minor was convicted of guaranteeing $140,000 in loans to Whitfield in 1998, then using cash, a third party and a backdated promissory note to try to conceal the fact that Minor paid off the loan. Whitfield awarded Minor’s client $3.6 million in a lawsuit. The Mississippi Supreme Court later reduced the award to $1.6 million.

Minor was also accused of guaranteeing a loan of $24,500 to Teel the same year. Prosecutors said Teel forced through a $1.5 million settlement in one of Minor’s cases before his court.

Minor acknowledged guaranteeing loans for Teel and Whitfield, but claimed he was only helping friends who had fallen on hard times and that he expected nothing in return.

After their convictions, Whitfield and Teel were allowed to walk out of court on appeal bonds.