Standing by Their Man

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

You knew Scooter Libby was in trouble at yesterday's sentencing hearing when his lawyer decided to read the judge a character reference -- from Paul Wolfowitz.

Wolfowitz, the soon-to-be-former World Bank president, has been in need of some character references himself since he lost his job because of a raise he arranged for his girlfriend. But in a letter dated 11 days after he announced his departure, a selfless Wolfowitz urged "maximum possible leniency" for his friend, who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame leak case.

"He made decisive contributions to the development of our first post-Cold War defense strategy -- a shift that made possible a nearly 40 percent reduction in spending and force levels," defense lawyer Ted Wells read from the Wolfowitz letter.

It's unclear whether a larger reduction in force levels would have carried more leniency in the sentencing, but Judge Reggie Walton was clearly unimpressed with this and the five other letters Wells chose to read aloud. "I have read all the letters," he said, interrupting Wells.

"I understand," Wells said, then resumed his reading.

Walton gave Libby a stiff sentence of 30 months in prison and hinted that he won't grant bail to the former aide to Vice President Cheney while he pursues his appeal. In doing so, the judge rejected not only the wishes of Wolfowitz but also a brief, poignant plea from Libby himself.

"I realize fully that the court must decide on punishment," the wiry defendant said. It was the first time he spoke in court during the trial, except for a "Yes, sir" response to a question from the judge early on. In a gentle voice, he continued: "It is respectfully my hope that the court will consider, along with the jury verdict, my whole life."

The last words came out quietly, and Libby walked back to his seat, only for the judge to order him to return to hear his sentence.

"Individuals should understand that when you transgress the law, there are consequences," Walton said. When those in high positions "step over the line," he continued, "it causes people to lose faith in our government."

Libby was pale and expressionless after the judge pronounced the 30-month sentence. Libby's wife, Harriet Grant, lowered her head. The two left the courthouse ignoring shouted questions from reporters ("Are you disappointed?") and taunts from demonstrators ("You're a criminal!").

The only public display of emotion the couple allowed themselves was at the start of the day, when Grant wept while greeting Mary Matalin, a former colleague of her husband's, with a tight hug.

The lawyers spent the first couple of hours bickering over sentencing technicalities, with regular references to "dicta" and "cross-referencing" and offense levels 12, 17, 19 and 25.

Defense lawyer Bill Jeffress tried to start a debate of hypotheticals, offering a murder-case analogy: "There was no murder here. It was an accident, a suicide, what have you."

Walton offered a dueling hypothetical: "What if you can never establish whether there was a murder or not because the body wasn't found?"

Jeffress then conjured a "terrorist plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge" that "turns out to be a teenage prank."

Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald proposed a beating case where "it doesn't matter whether a flashlight was used."

Walton, warming to the exercise, added: "It's one thing if you obstruct a petty larceny. It's another if you obstruct a murder."

The moot court thus complete, it was time for the main event. Fitzgerald, true to form, made his argument in eight succinct minutes. "Truth matters above all else in the judicial system," he argued. "One's station in life does not matter."

Wells, also true to form, gave a 34-minute discursive argument. "It's entirely appropriate for a sentencing judge to take into consideration the good works and the good deeds that a person has done," he said, distinguishing his client from all those people "from privileged backgrounds who do squat." Wells, reading from some of the more than 150 testimonials, outlined Libby's triumphs, from Boris Yeltsin to Project Bioshield. Along the way, Libby was described as an "island of virtue."

Because of "the public humiliation he has suffered combined with his extraordinary national service," Wells assured the judge, "incarceration is not required."

Libby, before asking that his whole life be taken into account, said he had "spent more than 1,000 hours in this building in the last year and a half" and experienced "nothing but kindness."

The kindness, however, was at an end. After praising Libby for his "essential role in keeping this country safe," the judge brought out the inevitable "but."

"But there is obviously the other side," he continued. "The evidence in this case overwhelmingly indicated Mr. Libby's culpability." Libby "did not take any effort to find out" about Plame's covert status at the CIA before outing her, the judge said, and his claims of memory lapses to explain his false grand jury testimony are "just not born out by the evidence."

Weaving his way through several howevers, buts and an "on the one hand"/"on the other hand," Walton finally arrived at his destination: "Mr. Libby will serve 30 months."

It is a harsh sentence, to be sure. But there's no telling how much worse it might have been if Libby's lawyer had read aloud the testimonial from Donald Rumsfeld.

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