Judge Cleared Of Embezzlement Charges

Wes Teel sat quietly with his hands together and his head bowed when the judge read the verdict acquitting him of all charges.

Last December, a grand jury indicted Teel of pocketing nearly $3,800 that the state reimbursed him for office expenses instead of paying eight vendors who provided the services. Teel's attorney says the judge should never have been indicted on what he says is clearly not embezzlement.

The "not guilty" verdict drew lots of courtroom cheers and tears as a crying Wes Teel hugged and shook hands with supporters. Teel says relief was the only thing he could feel when he heard the verdict.

"Just relieved and looking forward to going back to work. We have really good dedicated people in Harrison, Hancock and Stone Counties," Teel said.

Teel's attorney told the jury Teel was careless in the way he handled his business matters, and his wife's illness made the problems worse. Payments to vendors were anywhere from 11 months to nearly three years delinquent.

Joe Sam Owen says those debts were between the judge and the vendors, and Teel paid the vendors off last October. Owen says once the state reimbursed Teel for the office expenses, the money became Teel's, and the state never proved otherwise.

Owen says the jury saw Teel as a good judge with a lot of personal problems.

"It was a civil oriented problem that was compounded by Myrna Teel's health problems and a sincere effort by Judge Teel to correct it."

Despite the verdict, the district attorney maintains he put on a good case.

"The jury sets the standards for the community," Cono Caranna said. "They listened to the evidence and they decided in their opinion this doesn't not constitute embezzlement. I think it was clear he did not pay the money."

Prosecutors deny Owen's accusation that the charges against Teel were politicially motiviated.

"There's a great deal of public trust that goes along with handling money. From the state's perspective we felt he had misappropriated that money, he abused his public trust and that's why we thought it was appropriate to put this issue before the jury," Assistant Attorney General Lee Martin said.

Judge Teel was suspended last February by the Mississippi Suprememe Court and the state Judicial Performance Commission. The commission has been notified of the verdict. Owen says he's not sure what other requirements the commission and supreme court will need before Teel is allowed to go back to work.