It is not unheard of for the prosecution to cheat, hide evidence, manufacture evidence and generally manipulate the justice system to achieve injustice. But in the case of former United States Senator Ted Stevens Republican-Alaska, not only was the ill-gotten criminal conviction dismissed but the Judge has vowed to investigate the Justice Department. This is rare on both counts, especially for a Judge to pursue sanctions beyond the routine tongue-lashing.
“In nearly 25 years on the bench, I’ve never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I’ve seen in this case,” United States District Judge Emmet Sullivan said, as he spoke for 14 minutes with thinly-veiled anger. The trial of the former Alaska Senator was held in the District of Columbia, where Judge Sullivan sits. Judge Sullivan appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the Justice Department lawyers who prosecuted Senator Stevens. They repeatedly withheld evidence from Senator Stevens’ lawyers during the trial. The trial resulted in Stevens’ conviction last October for lying on federal disclosure forms about gifts and home renovations he received from wealthy friends. The rules of federal procedure provide for the appointment of a special prosecutor for contempt investigations, but is rarely done.
Judge Sullivan, appointed Henry F. Scheulke III of Washington, D.C., to investigate contempt and obstruction by the Justice Department lawyers. Mr. Scheulke is a former prosecutor and experienced defense attorney who oversaw a Senate Ethics Committee investigation and influence-peddling allegations in 1989 against former New York Senator Alfonse D’ Amato. Scheulke will investigate six career lawyers with the Justice Department, including the William Welch, chief, and Brenda Morris, deputy chief of the Public Integrity Section, an elite unit that deals with official corruption. The other lawyers to be investigated for possible criminal charges are Joseph W. Bottini, James A. Goeke, Nicholas A. Marsh and Edward P. Sullivan (no relation to Judge Sullivan or to Brendan Sullivan, attorney for Senator Stevens).
The judge said the matter was too serious to be left to an internal investigation by the Justice Department, which had dragged its feet, he said, before looking into the misconduct. He criticized Attorney General Michael Mukasey for not responding to complaints. The said reaction of the Justice Department was “shocking but not surprising.” Of course, this is the usual result of charges of misconduct by the prosecution: File 13. Nothing ever happens, the prosecutors know nothing ever happens, so what disincentive is there not to do again. It is similar to police who manipulate evidence: they only rarely suffer any penalties for their constant corruption of the justice system.
But Judge Sullivan did not let die the wrongdoing of these prosecutors. He called on Attorney General Eric Holder, who dismissed Senator Stevens’ conviction on April 1st in recognition of his department’s ill deeds, to retrain all prosecutors in the Justice Department.
Some observers have remarked that, notwithstanding the wrongdoing of the Justice lawyers, there was a healthy amount of evidence incriminating Senator Stevens. These observers suggest he has not been convicted, but he really doesn’t look innocent of wrongdoing. Senator Stevens was defeated in his Senate reelection campaign days after the guilty jury verdict in this trial.
Regardless of the guilt or innocence of this Senator or a thousand other accused citizens, if the United States Justice Department, and its elite Public Integrity Section no less, cannot carry out its work in an ethical manner, our system of justice is corrupt.
During the five-week trial, the prosecution lawyers were repeatedly forced to admit they had not turned over materials to the defense. Judge Sullivan even said then,“How does anyone have any confidence that the Public Integrity Section has any integrity?” But the judge overruled defense objections, as always happens, and allowed the prosecution’s tainted case to go the jury. Not surprisingly, the jury found the Senator guilty. However, the surprise came when Judge Sullivan then threw out the jury verdict. The still-further surprise came when the Judge gave notice that the wrong-doing prosecutors would not just go home to cheat again in their next trial. This time they might have to pay some penalty for wrongdoing—for a change and for the better. It’s about time.