By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
A three-judge federal appeals court panel Thursday threw out Marie and Michael Salts’ 2005 embezzlement convictions.
It wasn’t clear whether the state will ask the full 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to address the case or if it just comes back for prosecution in state court.
In 2003, the Saltses were indicted on six counts each of embezzlement related to burial insurance payments to the funeral home they operated in Prentiss County.
Ultimately, they were convicted on lesser counts in Lee County and sentenced to prison.
Marie Salts served her sentence, but her ex-husband remains in jail on a sentence extended because of a prior conviction.
Tupelo attorneys Jim Waide and Rachel Pierce represented the Saltses in their appeal to the 5th Circuit.
District Attorney Trent Kelly said the Attorney General’s Office hasn’t decided whether to appeal to the full panel of judges or to bring the case back for trial.
The state of Mississippi has 120 days to begin new prosecution, although the clock doesn’t start until the mandate is issued in about two weeks.
Marie Salts’ record is cleared by Thursday’s ruling, Pierce said. Michael Salts should be released after the two weeks.
Complicating their lives are two pending federal cases that they engineered a fraud to buy a house through a straw buyer. Recently, each pleaded guilty to one count and faces up to 20 years in prison.
In Thursday’s 2-1 ruling, the 5th Circuit judges affirmed U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry Davis’ 2010 ruling that the Saltses were unconstitutionally convicted.
Waide appealed their original convictions on a Sixth Amendment claim for ineffective assistance of counsel.
Their appeals were rejected by the Mississippi Court of Appeals and denied without opinion by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
“Because the Mississippi court’s decision was contrary to clearly established law,” the new ruling stated, “we affirm the district court’s grant” of relief.
They went on trial in October 2005 after multiple delays caused by their attorney, Michael Thorne, and a courthouse renovation. With just days to go, they fired Thorne and hired Waide, who then asked Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner III for a continuance.
Gardner denied them any more time and also rejected Waide’s concerns that each client needed his or her own attorney, given the complexity of evidence about who worked when at the funeral home.
The 5th Circuit said the state Court of Appeals made numerous wrong decisions. The new ruling states that the Saltses are entitled “to relief” because of clear conflicts for Waide with two clients.
“Because the trial court failed to investigate” Waide’s objection, “reversal is required,” the 5th Circuit said.
In light of Waide’s motion to the court, the trial judge should have either appointed separate counsel or investigated further to ensure that no conflict existed.
Waide’s motion also was timely, the new ruling said, contradicting the state Court of Appeals’ determination it was “dilatory.”