So, last week’s report about the 2008 prosecution of the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was particularly disgusting. Independent investigators depict poorly managed prosecutors intentionally subverting justice.
Stevens’s conviction undoubtedly contributed to his reelection defeat, which would mean prosecutors also subverted the electoral process.
The report has ramifications that go beyond the named prosecutors and law enforcement agents, whose misdeeds are finely detailed. It sullies the reputation of the department, emphasizes the need for better training and could affect employee morale.
“People worry they are one inadvertent mistake away from having their careers ended,” said one Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Aware of that concern, he added, the department does not want “to put them in a trick box so if they make an honest mistake their careers are over.”
A former U.S. attorney, Matthew D. Orwig of Dallas, doesn’t think the Stevens case will produce a morale problem.
“Very, very isolated cases that get a lot of attention will not change the way the average U.S. attorney operates,” he said. Every federal prosecutor he has dealt with in his private practice, he added, “has handled himself or herself very, very honorably.”
That wasn’t the situation in the Stevens prosecution, where federal employees were the villains and the convicted person the victim.
Stevens, in fact, might have been guilty. It’s hard to tell now because the actions of prosecutors led to his corruption conviction being thrown out. A federal judge held government lawyers in contempt for failing to provide certain information to his attorneys. Shortly after taking office, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. assigned a new team to the Stevens case. What it found after the conviction led Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to dismiss the charges against Stevens in April 2009, at the government’s request and to the department’s credit.
Under the law and department policy, prosecutors are required to provide defendants information favorable to them. Yet, the report by investigators Henry F. Schuelke III and William Shields is replete with examples of that not being done, examples they found “astonishing.”
About one item that could have helped Stevens, the investigators wrote: “The complete, simultaneous and long term memory failure by the entire prosecution team, four prosecutors and the FBI case agent, of the same statement about an important document made at the same meeting by their key witness in a high profile case is extraordinary.”
Schuelke and Shields said that “our investigation found evidence which compels the conclusion, and would prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that information “was intentionally withheld from the attorneys for Senator Stevens,” yet was insufficient to convict prosecutors of violating criminal contempt law.