MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. There was another stunning development today in the case of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who was convicted last fall on corruption charges. As expected, Judge Emmett Sullivan, who presided over the trial, granted the government's motion to set aside the guilty verdict and drop all charges, but the judge went even further. He appointed a special prosecutor to investigate charges of misconduct against the prosecution lawyers who brought the case against Stevens. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

TED STEVENS: Tell them all I'm going to enjoy this wonderful day. That's all.

NINA TOTENBERG: Leaving the courthouse after nearly a two-hour hearing, the usually dour Ted Stevens was ebullient. Inside the courtroom, he even shook hands with the new team of prosecutors. The new team was assigned to the case in February and within five weeks, discovered and turned over to defense lawyers notes taken by the original trial team that contained exculpatory information - notes that previously were withheld.

Stevens told the judge the conduct of the original prosecutors had nearly destroyed his faith in the criminal justice system, and the conduct of the new team had restored it. Judge Sullivan missed no words. In 25 years on the bench, he said, I've never seen anything approach the mishandling and misconduct in this case. Again and again, he said, the government was caught making false representations and failing to meet what it knew was its obligation to turn over information that was potentially favorable to the defense.

The fair administration of justice, he said, should not depend on the luck of the draw. It should not depend on who represents a defendant, or whether an FBI agent blows the whistle, or whether there's a new administration, or a new attorney general or a new trial team. Whether you're a public official, or a private citizen or a Guantanamo detainee, he said, the government has an obligation to produce exculpatory evidence so that justice can be done.

The events of this case are too numerous and serious to leave to an internal inquiry by the Justice Department, Judge Sullivan said. He noted that the Department Office of Professional Responsibility has supposedly been investigating the prosecutors conduct for six months and quote, "the silence has been deafening." Accordingly, said Judge Sullivan, he was invoking a federal law allowing him to undertake contempt proceedings against the entire first team of prosecutors.

I have the highest regard for Attorney General Eric Holder, said the judge, but because the interests of justice are best served by taking this probe out of the Justice Department, he said he'd appointed a private attorney - an experienced former prosecutor and military judge named Henry Schuelke to conduct the inquiry.

I have not prejudged this case, said Sullivan, and I certainly hope the record will find no intentional obstruction of justice by prosecutors. So what happens next? Judge Sullivan ordered the Justice Department to make available to the new special prosecutor all the department's files and witnesses in the Steven's case. George Washington University law professor and former prosecutor Stephen Saltzburg.

STEPHEN SALTZBURG: It's going to be a pretty thorough investigation, I think, into whether the prosecutors met their obligations, which they apparently didn't, to turn over evidence. But probably more importantly, then whether they did is to the extent they didn't, how bad was the conduct? And did it appear to be deliberate or negligent? And that, I think, all will be meaningful to the judge as he considers what he's going to do.

TOTENBERG: Not all of the original prosecution team were involved in the case from the beginning. Indeed the lead prosecutor, Brenda Morris, was assigned to the case only weeks before the trial began. And as even Stevens' defense lawyer observed today, she may not have known about earlier interviews with the prosecution's star witness, Bill Allen - interviews in which Allen failed to provide the lethal testimony that he did at trial, interviews which were not revealed to the defense until two weeks ago. But as Columbia Law School professor and former prosecutor Daniel Richman notes, witnesses don't always say exactly the same thing.

DANIEL RICHMAN: One of the things we all know about conversations with witnesses is that different details come out at different times. And the failure to have said something isn't necessarily a sign of later fabrication. Could it be? Sure. These are hard.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, Richman observes that in 2006, when the Justice Department actually prosecuted one of its own for concealing evidence in a Detroit terrorism case, that prosecutor was acquitted. Even if this investigation does not lead to criminal charges, though, the prosecutors could be fined, disbarred, fired and at the very minimum, they will have to hire lawyers and spend tens of thousands of dollars to defend themselves.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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