Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Feds Drop Corruption Charges Against Ted Stevens

You may recall that former Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska was convicted the week before the 2008 elections but still came close to being re-elected to his seventh full term. Now the Justice Department is dropping the charges:


Stevens was convicted of seven felony counts of lying on Senate financial disclosure forms to conceal hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and home renovations from a wealthy oil contractor.

The trial was beset by government missteps, which continued even after the guilty verdict was read. The trial judge grew so infuriated he took the unusual step of holding the Justice Department in contempt...

...U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan held Justice Department lawyers in contempt in February for failing to turn over documents as ordered. He called their behavior "outrageous."

Sullivan had ordered Justice to provide the agency's internal communications regarding a whistle-blower complaint brought by an FBI agent involved in the investigation of Stevens. The agent objected to Justice Department tactics during the trial, including failure to turn over evidence and an "inappropriate relationship" between the lead agent on the case and the prosecution's star witness.

It's not surprising that the Bush Justice Department screwed up. It still surprises me that federal prosecutors went after Stevens at all, given the political climate at the time.

The Justice Department (the new Justice Department) is investigating the prosecutors who tried Stevens' case, and AG Eric Holder says this:
"I have determined that it is in the interest of justice to dismiss the indictment and not proceed with a new trial," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement released Wednesday. He said the department must ensure that all cases are "handled fairly and consistent with its commitment to justice."

I applaud Eric Holder's efforts to restore integrity -- and credibility -- to the Justice Department. IMO, he's made the right decision here, although I suspect he's also getting out in front of the likely reversal of the conviction in appeals court. ( Not to mention the extreme unlikelihood of Ted Stevens making a political comeback at this point.)

As for the broader implications: a rich white Republican gets his conviction effectively overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct so obvious that the judge called it out. Will we see similar results for poor defendants with court-appointed attorneys who are too busy, too inexperienced, or too uninterested to pursue similar misconduct? Should I hold my breath?