Former Alabama governor released from prison

Supporters believe Democrat Don Siegelman was the victim of political prosecution by the Justice Department.

Published March 28, 2008 1:34PM (EDT)

Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, who has been serving a seven-year federal prison sentence for bribery, was ordered released from prison Thursday pending appeal. The House Judiciary Committee had already requested that the Department of Justice release Siegelman to testify about the circumstances of his prosecution and conviction, which Siegelman and his supporters, including many in the blogosphere, contend was politically motivated. On Thursday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that there were "substantial questions" about his case, without specifying what those questions were. Siegelman will be free on bond during the appeals process; on Thursday his wife and daughter were headed to Oakdale, La., to pick him up and bring him back to Birmingham.

An immediate question raised by Siegelman's legal team is whether the ex-governor, as a white-collar criminal, should ever have been incarcerated while the appeals process continued. It is common practice in white-collar cases for defendants to remain free on bond. Siegelman was also shackled in the courtroom, another departure from white-collar convention. But for Siegelman's supporters, the overriding issue is determining whether the ex-governor was the victim of a political prosecution directed by the Department of Justice in Washington. Siegelman was the last Democrat to hold the office of governor in Alabama, and lost reelection to the office in 2002 by the narrowest margin in state history. The case is controversial in Alabama; a recent "60 Minutes" broadcast raising doubts about the prosecution was mysteriously blacked out in the northern part of the state.

Siegelman was indicted on federal charges in 2004, but the charges were thrown out "with prejudice" by a judge on the second day of his trial, meaning they could not be refiled using the same evidence. Federal prosecutors filed new charges in 2005. Siegelman was accused of providing favors to HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy in return for campaign donations. Both Scrushy and Siegelman were convicted in 2006, Siegelman on six counts of fraud and bribery and one count of obstruction of justice.

In 2007, attorney Dana Jill Simpson signed a sworn statement saying that she'd been on a Republican campaign conference call in 2002 when she heard Bill Canary, a GOP campaign consultant whose wife, Leura, is U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, say that his "girls" and "Karl" would make sure Siegelman was not politically viable in the future. Simpson took "girls" and "Karl" to mean Leura and Karl Rove, the Bush advisor.

The Alabama state GOP issued a statement about the 11th Circuit's ruling. "The former Governor's release pending appeal does not change the conviction by a jury of his peers. It would be premature to turn this development into anything other than a formality."

By Mark Schone

Mark Schone is Salon's executive news editor.

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