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Judge throws out Stevens conviction

Investigation of US prosecutors in the case begins

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post / April 8, 2009
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WASHINGTON - A federal judge yesterday tossed out the conviction of former US senator Ted Stevens after the Justice Department admitted its prosecutors mishandled evidence in the corruption case. The judge also initiated a criminal contempt investigation of six prosecutors in the case.

"In 25 years on the bench, I have never seen anything approach the mishandling and misconduct in this case," Judge Emmet Sullivan said. He called the allegations "shocking and disturbing."

Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, who narrowly lost a reelection bid just eight days after being found guilty on seven counts of lying on financial disclosure forms to hide gifts and free home renovations, said he was grateful that the judge took the allegations of misconduct seriously and welcomed the investigation of the prosecutors. He said what happened in the case "nearly destroyed" his faith in the criminal justice system.

Sullivan had ordered the government to hand over documents related to the allegations of misconduct by prosecutors.

The Justice Department last week announced it would ask Sullivan to overturn Stevens's conviction and indictment following the latest revelation that prosecutors withheld notes from defense lawyers that contradicted testimony by their key witness.

Prosecutors have said they will not seek to retry Stevens. In coming weeks or months, after reviewing the evidence, Sullivan could sanction prosecutors if he finds they intentionally violated rules governing witnesses or evidence. Several jurors have told The Washington Post that the evidence against Stevens was overwhelming during a month-long trial that ended in October.

He was convicted of not reporting on Senate disclosure forms that he accepted about $250,000 in gifts and free renovations to his home in Girdwood, Alaska. Most of the gifts and free remodeling work were supplied by Bill Allen, chief executive of Veco, a now-defunct oil services company.

Stevens testified in his own defense, but jurors said he came off as evasive and combative. His testimony also did not jibe with the evidence, they have said.

Still, prosecutors appear to have been their own worst enemies. They were chastised by Sullivan several times during the trial for how they handled witnesses and evidence.

Sullivan instructed the jury at least twice to ignore evidence that prosecutors introduced. And the problems did not end after the trial. A witness complained about being lied to by federal authorities about an immunity deal. And an FBI agent filed a report that accused prosecutors and fellow agents of misconduct.

In February, Sullivan held three prosecutors - William Welch II, Brenda Morris, and Patricia Stemler - in contempt for failing to comply with a court order. Welch is the head of the public corruption unit, and Morris was the lead prosecutor. Six members of the prosecution team eventually withdrew from aspects of the case that dealt with allegations of misconduct.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. assigned a team of top department lawyers to examine the case. In a three-page motion filed last week asking Sullivan to dismiss the conviction, Justice Department prosecutor Paul M. O'Brien said he discovered evidence that two prosecutors did not turn over notes from an interview in April 2008 with Allen, the case's key witness.

Those notes contradicted a critical piece of testimony Allen later gave at trial.