A federal judge in Washington on Tuesday threw out the criminal conviction of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens because of prosecutorial misconduct and ordered a criminal probe of six prosecutors involved in the trial.
"In nearly 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 at the hearing, granting a government motion to throw out the conviction and dismiss the indictment.
Stevens was the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, but voters abandoned him after he was convicted of lying on Senate financial disclosure forms about expensive gifts he received from an Alaska businessman. Days after his Oct. 27 conviction, Stevens lost his re-election bid in a close contest against Democrat Mark Begich, former mayor of Anchorage.
Stevens was convicted of seven 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. He was appealing his conviction.
At trial, he argued that he didn't disclose the items he received because they were not gifts. A $2,700 massage chair, for instance, remained in his house for seven years, but Stevens said it was a loan. He said he assumed a $3,200 stained-glass window was paid for, since his wife takes care of such things. A $29,000 fish statue was a donation to his foundation, he said, and only remained on his front porch because that's where the donors shipped it.
Jurors rejected Stevens' defense, and the government's motion to dismiss did not say that the former lawmaker was not guilty, only that Justice Department prosecutors didn't play by the rules in trying to make their case.
During Stevens' trial, Sullivan repeatedly chastised prosecutors for infractions, and problems continued long after the verdict was rendered.
FBI agent Chad Joy later accused some of his colleagues on the prosecution team of "serious violations of policy, rules and procedures, as well as possible criminal violations" in an affidavit from the agent earlier this year.
In February, Sullivan held three veteran prosecutors — William Welch II, chief of DOJ's public integrity section; Brenda Morris, deputy section chief; and Patricia Stemler, appellate section supervisor — in contempt for failing to comply with a court order to produce documents.
Attorney General Eric Holder assigned a new team of attorneys to handle the case, and last week, the Justice Department filed a motion to throw out the conviction and dismiss the indictment. The motion said the new team of government attorneys had found a new instance in which prosecutors failed to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense.
Holder said he decided to ask for a dismissal and not seek a new trial "in the interest of justice."
In court on Tuesday, Stevens said the prosecution's action's caused him to question his faith in the criminal justice system.
"Until recently, my faith in the criminal system, particularly the judicial system, was unwavering," Stevens told the court. "But what some members of the prosecution team did nearly destroyed my faith. Their conduct had consequences for me that they will never realize and can never be reversed."
Sullivan appointed Washington attorney Henry Schuelke as special prosecutor to investigate the government prosecutors for possible criminal contempt charges. Sullivan said the matter was too serious to be handled internally by the Justice Department, which, he said, took too long to investigate misconduct allegations.
The prosecutors who are being investigated are Welch, who did not participate in the trial, but supervises the DOJ Public Integrity unit; Morris; Public Integrity prosecutors Nicholas Marsh and Edward Sullivan; and Alaska federal prosecutors Joseph Bottini and James Goeke.
From NPR and wire service reports