It’s hard to think of a powerful sitting U.S. senator as a victim, but, by the end of the corruption case against Ted Stevens, it certainly seemed he had been given a raw deal by prosecutors.
Stevens was convicted of lying on Senate financial disclosure forms to conceal more than $250,000 in gifts and home repairs. But shortly after the verdict, a team of Justice Department lawyers found that the trial prosecutors from the Public Integrity Section had kept key evidence from Stevens’ Williams & Connolly defense team. In April, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. abandoned the case and the indictment was thrown out.
The Stevens debacle is just the highest-profile example in a decade rich with prosecutors who seemed to have gone too far.
There was Richard Convertino, an assistant U.S. attorney criminally charged (and later acquitted) of illegally withholding evidence to secure convictions in a terrorism case in Detroit. Michael Nifong, the Durham County, N.C., district attorney, was found guilty of contempt for his handling of a rape case against three Duke University lacrosse players. A federal judge in Miami this year ordered the government to pay $601,795 as a penalty for secretly recording defense lawyers in a health care fraud prosecution that ended in an acquittal. And just this month, a federal judge in California, citing prosecution-sponsored witness intimidation, dismissed charges against Broadcom Corp. co-founder Henry Nicholas III.
The fallout from the Stevens case continues. An internal ethics probe is ongoing, as is a criminal contempt investigation — called for by the judge who presided over the trial. Meanwhile, federal district judges, citing Stevens, are putting pressure on the Justice Department to embrace a more open discovery process. “I do think it’s time the Justice Department steps up to the plate to make this more uniform and clear,” said Judge Paul Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Some in the defense bar, however, said there’s been little action to stop bad behavior by prosecutors. “I think people were under the impression that cases like Stevens are rare and come up once every 10 years. They happen every day in small, rural districts to megadistricts,” said Cozen O’Connor partner Bernard Grimm.
— Mike Scarcella