EDITORIAL: Unfinished business: no justice in Sen. Ted Stevens case
Justice isn’t done in the federal case involving Alaska’s late Sen. Ted Stevens.
The Justice Department has blamed the system’s corrupt practices for the injustice committed upon Sen. Ted Stevens. It held no one accountable. No one suffered sufficiently for the consequences of the department’s unethical behavior in the Stevens case.
It appears that Justice and the people in its employ are above the law.
Of all people, it should be those employed by Justice to uphold the law and to hold others publicly accountable who should be adamant about not only protecting the department’s credibility, but also the appearance of being credible.
A jury convicted Sen. Stevens in October 2008 of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in home renovations and gifts. Stevens had sought — much to the surprise of Justice Department prosecutors — a quick trial in order to clear his name before that November’s election. (The timing of the charges so close to an upcoming election will prompt speculation about prosecutorial intent well into the future.)
Months after the verdict, when evidence of prosecutorial misconduct emerged, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan threw out the conviction.
Sen. Stevens, who routinely won re-election with 70 percent of Alaska’s vote, narrowly lost his 2008 bid for re-election despite heartfelt proclamations of his innocence.
Alaskans find it difficult to respect a Justice Department that betrayed them, destroyed the late senator’s career and changed the makeup of the U.S. Senate. So do other Americans.
Lives changed forever, and not for the better, because of Justice’s handling of the Stevens case.
Alaskans want to see evidence that the Justice Department not only recognizes that, but makes amends. It needs to take action in order to begin to rebuild the trust and confidence of the public.
To date Justice has admitted it made grievous errors in the prosecution of Sen. Stevens. It has announced its intention to institute a new training curriculum for federal prosecutors to ensure ethical behavior. In other words, Justice says it will do better in the future. Federal penitentiaries are filled with those who say that — if the government just would release them from their punishment. That doesn’t begin to rebuild a sense of trust.
Judge Sullivan, who seems to understand the severity of Justice’s disgraceful behavior, ordered a special investigation of the Stevens prosecutorial team. Two and a half years later, the investigator, Washington, D.C., lawyer Henry F. Schuelke III, produced a scathing 514-page critique of that team.
The report says that the prosecutors withheld pertinent evidence from the Stevens’ defense team and the jury that by law they were required to provide. The evidence would have proven Sen. Stevens’ testimony to be truthful.
The prosecution team was “permeated by the systematic concealment of significant exculpatory evidence which would have independently corroborated Sen. Stevens defense and his testimony,” the report concludes.
The report also says that information withheld would have undermined the testimony of the prosecution’s star witness, Bill Allen. It noted that Allen, a convict on charges of bribery and conspiracy, provided information during the investigation. Allen’s initial story conflicted with his court testimony. But the prosecutors and FBI agent involved “forgot” about the earlier information. Schuelke pointed out that a “complete, simultaneous and long-term memory failure by the entire prosecution team” was “extraordinary” and “strains credulity.”
The prosecution denied misconduct, or, in one case, denied intentional misconduct. All of them pointed at superiors for Justice’s failures.
Schuelke wrote he couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt the prosecutors’ intent in the Stevens case. As a result, he didn’t recommend criminal charges.
But, undoubtedly, Judge Sullivan is reviewing the findings, and he might well come to a different conclusion. The judge who oversees a case has a view unique to all others involved or following proceedings.
The Justice Department still could act beyond new training procedures, holding the guilty parties accountable. Dismissal from Justice might be an outcome. Disbarment is a possibility.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski has introduced legislation, the Fairness in Disclosure of Evidence Act, to create a nationwide standard for disclosure of evidence that demonstrates the innocence of a defendant to defense attorneys in federal cases. Currently, there are almost 100 varying standards throughout the nation.
The act is a response to the Justice Department’s failures in the Stevens case.
“What happened in the trial of Senator Stevens is unfortunately not an isolated incident, but most Americans do not have the wherewithal that he did to push back against prosecutorial misconduct,” says Murkowski. “While I do believe most federal prosecutors are adhering to the law, it’s clear the rules in place are not preventing ‘hide-the-ball’ prosecutions in cases across the country. There are a few prosecutors out there willing to put a finger on the scales of justice to get more convictions — and this bill seeks to stop that. Justice should be blind, not blindly ignored.”
Alaskans are pleased to see the Stevens case might result in improvements in the law and in the training that prepares federal prosecutors.
But still the case isn’t over until guilty parties in the Justice Department — whether the lawyers in the trenches or their superiors — suffer the full consequences of their action or inaction.
Then, and only then, justice will be served and the Justice Department can rebuild its credibility with the public and within the Justice Department itself.