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Special Prosecutor to Investigate Government Lawyers in Sen. Stevens Case

Posted Apr 7, 2009 11:52 AM CDT
By Martha Neil

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As requested by the government, a federal judge today reversed the corruption conviction of former Sen. Ted Stevens and dismissed the case against him with prejudice.

But the case is far from over. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan is appointing a special prosecutor to pursue a criminal contempt probe against the prosecution team and its supervisor at the U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section, reports the Blog of Legal Times.

"In nearly 25 years on the bench, I've never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I've seen in this case," the judge said today. Before acquitting Stevens, Sullivan read what the Associated Press describes as a "stinging summary" of withheld evidence and witnesses mishandled by the government.

The judge also described a troubling trend generally of prosecutors withholding exculpatory evidence they are required to provide to the defense, the news agency reports. To address it, Sullivan called for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to better train prosecutors and suggested that judges nationwide should issue formal written orders in criminal cases concerning prosecutors' turnover obligations.

In the interest of justice, Sullivan said at the hearing today, he is naming partner Henry Schuelke III of Janis Schuelke & Wechsler to investigate the prosecution team in the Stevens case concerning its repeated violation of court orders concerning exculpatory evidence and potential obstruction of justice, the BLT reports.

Those potentially targeted in the investigation include section chief William Welch II; principal deputy chief Brenda Morris, who was lead prosecutor in the Stevens case; section prosecutors Edward Sullivan and Nick Marsh; and two assistant U.S. attorneys based in Stevens' home state of Alaska, James Goeke and Joseph Bottini, the law blog says.

A subsequent Associated Press article gives brief biographies of those facing investigation.

The initial BLT and AP articles didn't include any response from the Justice Department. However, “We deeply, deeply regret that this occurred,” Justice Department lawyer Paul O’Brien said in court today of the government’s handling of the case, reports Bloomberg.

“We’re no match for corrupt prosecutors,” said attorney Brendan Sullivan, who represents Stevens, the news agency reports. “They abandoned all decency to win a conviction. The fear of loss drove them to do what they did.”

Although prosecutors have repeatedly said any mistakes made during the trial of Stevens were inadvertent errors made in good faith, the judge "spoke disdainfully" today of these assertions and said he had witnessed "shocking and serious" violations of the government's duty to provide exculpatory evidence to the defense, reports the New York Times.

After the Stevens case collapsed, "lawyers poring over the wreckage" said it was poorly managed, inadequately supervised, and hampered by months of conflict between prosecutors and agents of the FBI, the newspaper writes.

In an earlier article, the Times reports as one example of the government team's disarray an FBI agent's claim, in an affidavit, that up to 30 boxes of evidence sat unsorted outside a prosecutor’s office even as the Stevens trial was about to begin.

Infighting between prosecutors in the Washington, D.C., public integrity section and those based in Alaska also was a problem, according to the article, which cites anonymous sources.

And, late in the investigation, those in charge appointed a lead prosecutor from Washington, "rankling lower-level lawyers even more," the Times writes.

Additional coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Fed’l Judge in Sen. Stevens Case Puts Spotlight on Prosecution"

ABAJournal.com: "Stevens Debacle Shows More Oversight of Prosecutors is Needed, Experts Say"

Updated at 3:05 p.m. to include AP article providing prosecutor biographies.

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