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Justice Dept. Seeks To Void Stevens' Conviction

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Justice Dept. Seeks To Void Stevens' Conviction

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Justice Dept. Seeks To Void Stevens' Conviction

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The Justice Department has now confirmed an NPR report that corruption charges are being dropped against former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. He was convicted of lying on his senate disclosure forms and he was defeated for reelection last year. The case centered on gifts from an oil industry executive and other friends. And the evidence included tapes of Steven's own phone calls. But ever since that conviction charges of prosecutorial misconduct have overshadowed the case. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg broke the story of what's happening now and she has the latest.

NINA TOTENBERG: This morning, Attorney General Eric Holder released a statement saying that he'd concluded that the prosecutors in this case should have provided certain information to the defense, information that could have aided in the cross examination of the prosecution's star witness. Said Holder, I have determined that it is in the interest of justice to dismiss the indictment and not proceed with a new trial. Holder made his decision just weeks before the judge in charge of the case was to hold yet another hearing to probe prosecutor's actions. Since Steven's conviction last fall, the judge has repeatedly delayed sentencing and criticized prosecutors for he called prosecutorial misconduct, at one point even holding prosecutors in contempt. Things got so bad that the Justice department finally replaced the whole trial team, including top-ranking officials in the Office of Public Integrity, that's the justice department section charged with prosecuting public corruption cases.

With no end in sight and more ugly hearings expected, Attorney General Holder decided late yesterday to pull the plug. Steven's lawyers were informed this morning. Holder is said to have made his decision because of Steven's age, he is 85; because Stevens is no longer in the senate, having lost his re election bid a week after his conviction; and perhaps, most importantly, justice department officials told NPR that Holder wanted to send a message to prosecutors throughout the department, that actions he regards as misconduct will not be tolerated.

Now, I should say here, that in his statement this morning, Holder was careful not to put any label of misconduct on the prosecutors, but he did say that the department's Office of Professional Responsibility would conduct a thorough review of the attorneys who handled the investigation and their actions. Holder began his career in the Public Integrity Section, the same justice department section that handled this case, and according to sources, he was horrified by the failure of prosecutors to turnover all relevant materials to the defense. The attorney general also knows the trial judge, Emmett Sullivan, well. The two men served together as superior court judges before each was promoted to higher office. Holder respects Sullivan, and according to those who know him, the attorney general watched with growing alarm as Sullivan repeatedly scolded and scalded prosecutors for failing to follow his judicial orders, to fully inform defense lawyers about everything from potentially favorable evidence to the travel plans of witnesses.

So now, Holder has put this case to an end - at least for Senator Stevens. For prosecutors, though, there will be a thorough examination of their conduct.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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