A team of government lawyers prosecuting Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska never fully reviewed evidence that could have bolstered his defense, were inadequately supervised and withheld information that would have “seriously damaged the testimony and credibility of the government’s key witness” in his 2008 corruption trial, a special counsel has determined.
The 514-page report from Washington lawyer Henry F. Schuelke III, however, stopped short of urging criminal misconduct charges against the six Stevens prosecutors because the federal judge in the case never “specifically” ordered prosecutors to turn over helpful material to the defense. The judge, however, had expected them to do so in order to be fair to the Stevens defense.
“This misconduct was intentional,” Schuelke concluded. But, he added, “the evidence is insufficient to establish beyond a reasonable doubt” that prosecutors purposely violated criminal contempt statutes.
Now, the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility is expected to recommend whether any of the half-dozen prosecutors should be terminated or disciplined, or absolved, of any misconduct.
Those findings will probably put the final touch on a four-year legal drama that began with corruption charges against the longest serving Republican senator in the nation’s history. It ended with his conviction in fall 2008, a verdict that cost him his reelection. The case was later dismissed because of the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, but Stevens died in an airplane crash in 2010.
“A miscarriage of justice would have been averted had the government complied with the law,” said Brendan Sullivan, the lead attorney for Stevens, reacting to the Schuelke report. “There would have been no illegal verdict. The senator would not have lost the election in Alaska. Instead, the government proceeded by any means necessary to win their case.”
Schuelke’s report also prompted a Republican ally of Stevens, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and a group of national legal activists to say they are announcing a new Fairness in Disclosure of Evidence Act aimed at preventing future government misconduct.
“Right now there are nearly 100 different standards that are being used nationwide,” said Matthew Felling, a spokesman for Murkowski. “We want to put a stop to this.”
At the Department of Justice, spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said the failings in the Stevens case already have brought new “sweeping training” programs for federal prosecutors. “We have taken unprecedented steps to ensure prosecutors, agents and paralegals have the necessary training and resources to properly fulfill their discovery and ethics obligations," she said.
Serrano reported from Washington and Murphy from Seattle.