By Associated Press - Tuesday, January 23, 2018

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A federal appeals court has overturned two of three criminal convictions against a 64-year-old Mississippi pastor, finding that the indictment, jury instructions and jury verdict form incorrectly stated the law.

The 2-1 decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was handed down Monday.

The Rev. Kenneth Fairley, a pastor in Hattiesburg, was found guilty in September 2016 of two counts of theft of government funds and one count of conspiracy to defraud the government, after prosecutors alleged he skimmed federal money from a housing rehabilitation program. But Circuit Judge Stephen Higginson, writing for the majority, said jury instructions and the jury form muddled the legal elements of stealing government money and receiving stolen property in a way that improperly harmed Fairley.

“In mixing the elements of ‘stealing’ and ‘receiving,’ the district court failed to adequately charge as to either,” Higginson wrote.

Circuit Judge Gregg Costa dissented, saying Fairley didn’t do enough to show the error substantially affected his rights. Costa also wrote that jurors crossed out parts of the jury form in a way that brought it into compliance with federal law, even though it’s unclear why they did so.

The court overturned the theft convictions and sent the conspiracy conviction back to U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett to decide if Fairley’s sentence should be changed.

Each conviction came with a three-year sentence, and Starrett ordered Fairley serve them concurrently, with release scheduled for 2019. Fairley was also fined $30,000 and ordered to pay $60,000 in restitution to the federal government.

The pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church and a political ally of former Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, Fairley is currently imprisoned in Oakdale, Louisiana.

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