Stevens Prosecutors Won't Face Criminal Charges
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
We have an update now on a long-running story out of Alaska. It began in the fall of 2008 when Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was convicted of corruption in what was considered the Justice Department's signature anticorruption case. That victory soon turned sour amid allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. The Justice Department ultimately dropped all charges against Stevens and then opened an internal investigation.
Well, NPR has now learned that the prosecutors who led that failed corruption case will themselves be spared criminal contempt charges.
NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins me to talk about the case. And Carrie, first, remind us what went so wrong in the case against the late Senator Ted Stevens, who died in an airplane crash after all this. What happened?
CARRIE JOHNSON: Well, Robert, this episode goes back to 2009 when Attorney General Eric Holder determined that evidence that should have been shared with defense lawyers for Ted Stevens was not shared. He said that was so serious a breach that he decided to walk away from the criminal conviction of Ted Stevens.
At the same time, the judge who oversaw the trial, Emmet Sullivan, appointed a special prosecutor to figure out whether any of the government lawyers had themselves broken the law by failing to turn over evidence. And the Justice Department launched its own internal inquiry into alleged ethics violations and misconduct by those prosecutors, too.
SIEGEL: As this investigation was going on, one member of the prosecutorial team actually committed suicide. Very distressed over this, we assume.
JOHNSON: Robert, that's exactly right. Nicolas Marsh, a junior member of the trial team, committed suicide in September as these investigations ran to a close. He and many other of the lawyers involved in this case had sat for multiple statements and interviews with other prosecutors and with internal ethics investigators at the Justice Department. This appears to have taken a toll on everybody involved in the case.
And let's not forget that some FBI agents involved in this prosecution, too, are under scrutiny for allegedly getting too close to some of the witnesses in the case against Senator Stevens.
SIEGEL: Meaning what, getting too close to some of the witnesses? What - how could that be a problem for an investigator?
JOHNSON: Well, the important point here is that the FBI, under the auspices of the Justice Department, is responsible for investigating these cases, but they also need to turn over evidence through the prosecution team that their witnesses have made inconsistent statements, have contradicted themselves. And that is the very sort of material that Judge Sullivan in this case was concerned that Justice Department never turned over to the defense for Ted Stevens.
SIEGEL: So the conclusion is there will not be criminal contempt charges against any of the prosecutors. Civil contempt charges?
JOHNSON: Judge Sullivan already has put into the record some civil contempt findings against some of these prosecutors. Some of them are appealing those findings. However, the most serious issue that these government lawyers may face is fighting state disciplinary actions after these ethics findings are turned over to local bar associations.
SIEGEL: Meaning a possible disbarment is what you...
JOHNSON: That is the most serious. What's more likely is some kind of formal reprimand, if anything.
SIEGEL: How rare would it have been to proceed with the criminal contempt charges against a prosecutor?
JOHNSON: Well, Robert, it's a high bar here. The Justice Department has done it, perhaps most recently in 2007 in a case against Richard Convertino, who was a prosecutor in Michigan. He came under fire, and in fact, was indicted for failing to turn over certain materials to defense lawyers in a terrorism case in Detroit the he prosecuted. But he was ultimately acquitted of those charges by a jury.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Carrie.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.
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