Outside editorial: In Ted Stevens' case, prosecutors forgot about justice

Posted: Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Faced with clear signs of government misconduct, Attorney General Eric Holder made the right call by moving to dismiss the Justice Department's case against former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. This is a disappointing end to the Stevens saga, but prosecutors botched this case so badly that the attorney general had no choice but to bring it to a merciful close.

How many times does it need to be said? The job of prosecutors is to obtain justice, not merely to secure convictions. Former Sen. Stevens, to be sure, was no poster child for good government. As a senior member of the Senate, he had clout and enjoyed using it, promoting projects such as the controversial "bridge to nowhere" even when it became the target of critical derision. But prosecutors went after him with such zeal that they forgot their obligation to guard and enforce the rights that every defendant is entitled to in a court of law.

Last November, the government won a bitterly contested conviction against Sen. Stevens on seven counts of filing false statements on his U.S. Senate financial-disclosure forms to hide about $250,000 in gifts and free renovations to his Alaska home. Within days, he lost the Senate seat he had held since 1968. Catching a big fish was a major win for prosecutors, but in the ensuing months it became evident that something was terribly wrong.

First, an FBI agent working on the case filed a whistle-blower complaint. He claimed that prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence to the defense as required by law. He said there was an "inappropriate relationship" between the lead agent on the case and the prosecution's star witness. Judge Emmit Sullivan then ordered the Justice Department to turn over 32 documents that would help him to weigh those claims.

When Justice failed to do so, the judge hit the ceiling. He ruled that four Justice prosecutors were in contempt of court and called the failure to comply outrageous.

Among the four were William Welch, the chief of the public integrity section that investigates official corruption and handled the Stevens case; and Brenda Morris, the section's deputy. The prosecution team is under investigation for its mishandling of the case.

As it turned out, the withheld evidence included notes in which key witnesses made statements at variance with their later testimony. At the least, this could have a bearing on their credibility as witnesses, and might have influenced the jury's ultimate verdict.

The actions of the prosecutors were - to quote a relevant Supreme Court decision - "inconsistent with the rudimentary demands of justice" (Mooney v. Holohan) and fully justified the attorney general's decision to dismiss.

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