During his decades in Washington, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was known for his tight control over the federal purse strings. But in his last years, Stevens also drew national attention to the obligations of prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence.
Stevens, 86, has died after a plane crash in rural Alaska, The Associated Press reports.
In October 2008, while Stevens (pictured above) was standing for reelection, a jury in Washington convicted him of making false statements for his failure to list certain items on his financial disclosure reports. But in April 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced the department was dropping the case, acknowledging that the trial team failed to turn over evidence to Stevens’ defense lawyers at Williams & Connolly.
The dismissal was a major embarrassment for the Justice Department and its Public Integrity Section. Earlier, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan issued a contempt holding against section chief William Welch II, Brenda Morris, who was the principal deputy chief and lead trial prosecutor, and appellate section supervisor Patricia Stemler.
A court-appointed counsel and the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility are continuing to investigate prosecutors’ actions in the Stevens case. In the meantime, the department has reassigned the prosecutors, including Welch, who stepped down as head of the Public Integrity Section in what his boss, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, called a “mutual” decision.
The Justice Department’s leadership has announced changes to prevent similar botched prosecutions in the future — for example, mandatory annual discovery training for all prosecutors and the creation of a new position at Main Justice to focus on discovery issues.
But those changes have also been the target of criticism. In June, Stevens' lawyers Brendan Sullivan Jr. and Robert Cary wrote to a committee of the United States Judicial Conference to argue that prosecutors have still not gone far enough in trying to eliminate misconduct in their own ranks.
UPDATE (4:52 p.m.): In a statement, Brendan Sullivan Jr. and Robert Cary called Stevens “an American hero” who “did not deserve the treatment he received late in his career from some members of the Department of Justice.”
“Senator Stevens was innocent, and insisted on fighting the charges,” the lawyers said. “Even after the case against him was dismissed, he remained profoundly affected by the government’s misconduct and its implications for others. His fervent hope was that meaningful change would be brought to the criminal justice system so that others would not be mistreated as he was by the very officials whose duty it is to represent the United States justly and fairly.”
National Law Journal photo by Diego M. Radzinschi.