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Criminal defense lawyers on Wednesday said the Justice Departments decision to abandon the prosecution of former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) underscores the burden on prosecutors not to cheat to get a conviction of a high-profile target.
But some government ethics advocates worried that the decision, another blow to the Justice Departments Public Integrity Section, will make it even harder for the government to press charges against Members of Congress.
The Justice Department filed a motion early Wednesday asking U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan to dismiss the charges against Stevens because of misconduct by the prosecutors in the case.
Stevens was convicted on Oct. 27 on seven counts of failing to report $250,000 in gifts from Alaska oil company executive Bill Allen and other friends. He lost his bid for re-election in November.
Stevens legal team filed more than a half-dozen motions throughout the trial seeking dismissal on the grounds that prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence helpful to the prosecution, had submitted evidence that the government knew was false and had attempted to hide key witnesses from defense attorneys.
Attorney General Eric Holder assigned a team to review the case, and the governments motion on Wednesday concluded that there was enough misconduct by prosecutors to warrant throwing out Stevens conviction.
Holder said on Wednesday, I have concluded that certain information should have been provided to the defense for use at trial. In light of this conclusion, and in consideration of the totality of the circumstances of this particular case, I have determined that it is in the interest of justice to dismiss the indictment and not proceed with a new trial.
Holder added, The Department of Justice must always ensure that any case in which it is involved is handled fairly and consistent with its commitment to justice.
Defense attorneys said Holders statement strikes a blow for the rights of defendants and does not make it harder to prosecute a strong case, but reinforces that prosecutors cannot hide evidence to rescue a weak case.
I think that the departments decision sends a powerful message to line prosecutors across the country that they cant play games on their obligations to turn over material to the defense, said Barry Pollack, a board member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Pollack said, The department has over time become increasingly aggressive and creative in how they have gone after Congressmen and other public officials. Holders announcement may be an indication that the pendulum is swinging back a little bit and saying there are some limits to what the government can do to obtain a conviction.
Dick DeGuerin, a high-profile attorney who defended former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), among other officials, said, What this means is that prosecutors who cheat are not going to get away with it.
But DeGuerin said that forcing prosecutors to hand over more evidence to defendants may actually speed prosecutions rather than slow them down, because if the prosecution case is strong, it will encourage lawyers to seek plea deals.