WASHINGTON – A federal judge Tuesday set aside a jury’s guilty verdict and the indictment against former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, then announced that he was naming a special prosecutor to investigate whether government attorneys had broken the law by failing to ensure that the Alaska Republican got a fair trial.
“In 25 years on the bench, I’ve never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I’ve seen in this case,” U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said in dismissing the case and voiding the verdict.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had asked Sullivan last week to dismiss the verdict and the charges after acknowledging that prosecutors had failed to share with Stevens’ attorneys notes from an interview with the prosecution’s key witness that contradicted the witness’s trial testimony.
Stevens, 85, was convicted on Oct. 27 of seven counts of failing to disclose gifts, including home renovations, on his Senate financial-disclosure forms. He lost his re-election bid days later.
Withholding materials that could be helpful to criminal defendants has become a troubling Justice Department trend, Sullivan said, citing Stevens’ case and that of a Guantanamo detainee who fought to have his medical records released to his lawyers.
The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating the Stevens prosecution team for the way it conducted the trial, but Sullivan said he wasn’t content to allow that internal probe to serve as punishment for the lawyers involved. He said that he’d asked a former military judge, Henry Schuelke III of Washington, to investigate the five prosecutors for potential obstruction of justice charges.
They are: William Welch, the head of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section; Brenda Morris, the lead trial attorney; Nicholas Marsh and Edward Sullivan, both trial attorneys in the Public Integrity Section; and Joseph Bottini and James Goeke, both assistant U.S. attorneys in Alaska.
“I have not prejudged these attorneys for their culpability, and I hope the record will find no intentional obstruction of justice,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan also announced that he would ask the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington to investigate the attorney for star witness Bill Allen, the former head of oil-services firm Veco. Anchorage attorney Robert Bundy, who sat in the spectator section of the courtroom while his client had been testifying, was accused by the judge and several of Stevens’ attorneys of sending signals to Allen on the stand. Bundy has denied the accusations.
Sullivan cited 10 examples of missteps on the part of prosecutors during and after the trial. He reminded the courtroom that prosecutors are required to turn over to defense attorneys any evidence than might show their clients in a better light – obligations that stem from a 1963 Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland – and he called on President Barack Obama and Holder to make sure that new U.S. attorneys understand those requirements.
“We must never forget the Supreme Court’s direction that a criminal trial is a search for the truth,” Sullivan said. “I urge the president and the attorney general as they select new U.S. attorneys, to obtain from those appointees their commitment to fulfilling these most important prosecutorial obligations.”
Feeling vindicated, Stevens strode out of the courthouse surrounded by well-wishers, including his three daughters. With their arms draped around one other, they smiled and posed for the throngs of photographers assembled outside the Washington courthouse.
“I’m going to enjoy this beautiful day,” Stevens said when he was asked what he’d do next and what message he had for Alaskans.