In the ongoing Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (M.D.M.R.) saga, three of five key players, Bill Walker, Michael Janus, and Scott Walker, have all been sentenced to time in federal prison. Now, Joe Ziegler Jr. has changed his initial not guilty plea to guilty, and Tina Shumate is the only one left holding on to her not guilty plea.
Scott Walker will soon report to federal prison to serve his 18 month sentence for fraud and conspiracy charges in the M.D.M.R. fraud case and for an unrelated case involving fraud in D'Iberville. Some are questioning why Walker was sentenced to serve only a fraction of the 15 years he faced on the two charges, especially considering that Michael Janus faced only one charge in the D'Iberville case, but is serving more time in prison.
One element playing a part in Walker's sentencing is letters written to Judge Keith Starrett on behalf of Walker, letters the Sun Herald argued to be made public. Henry Laird, an attorney with the Sun Herald, says, “To learn all the facts that the paper could about what influenced the outcome on the decision on the length of the sentence and the fines.”
While it is highly unusual for these types of letters to be made public, in this case, they act as character witnesses for Walker, and influenced, at least in part, the judge's decisions. Some judges, like Judge Coleman in the Mike Byrd trial, worry people will stop writing these letters if they know it could end up in the news. Common Sense instructed that many members of the community would be far less likely to submit such letters and volunteer candid input into the sentencing process if they knew their words were accessible to the media.
While judges worry that publishing individual letters may discourage those in the future from writing letters to judges, others say it’s important to be transparent. Ellyn Kamke of Poynter Institute says, “Generally, freedom of information laws are tools for the public, and journalists especially, that encourage government transparency and help us hold government officials accountable.”
The Sun Herald has been holding the government accountable throughout the M.D.M.R. investigation by requesting access to M.D.M.R. records, and now letters written to the judge. In a case with secret fishing trips, booze cruises, and furniture purchases on the M.D.M.R.'s dime, the public deserves to know who exactly was involved and why they received their sentencing.
Joe Ziegler's attorney, Joe Sam Owen, says he has entered a change of plea, but that they will not be pleading to the indictment. Sam Owen also says Scott Walker's sentencing did not influence their decision to change Ziegler's plea.