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The release of a scathing report this week detailing widespread prosecutorial misconduct that botched the corruption trial of the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has reignited calls to revisit the rules requiring government prosecutors to hand over evidence that could help exonerate criminal defendants.
Though the underlying cause of the derailed prosecution has been known since April 2009, when Stevens' conviction was set aside after the Department of Justice said it had failed to disclose evidence that would have helped the Senator's defense team, details of prosecutors' "willful nondisclosure" in this week's report stunned legal observers, who say this is just the latest case that illustrates how badly the rules need revision.
"It's a really sad story, very disturbing and upsetting. ... There are no winners," said Peter Zeidenberg, a partner at DLA Piper. "But I think the problem is, frankly, larger. It's a systemic, global problem in that the way discovery is currently provided in these white-collar cases is problematic."
Stevens was found guilty in October 2008 of making false statements on his annual Senate financial disclosure forms because, prosecutors alleged, he did not disclose gifts he received in connection with the remodeling of his Girdwood, Alaska, home. The verdict was set aside after the DOJ said its prosecutors had failed to hand over evidence that would have bolstered Stevens' defense.
The acknowledgement did not come soon enough to save Stevens' re-election bid — he lost his seat to Democrat Mark Begich that November, shortly after the trial ended but before the government filed its motion to dismiss his indictment.
Stevens died when his plane crashed in rural Alaska in August 2010.
The judge who presided over the Stevens trial appointed Henry F. Schuelke to investigate the prosecutors who handled the case. Schuelke's 524-page report, which was unsealed this week, paints a picture of a prosecution team so hampered by infighting that disgruntled attorneys cut corners by assigning document-review duties to FBI and IRS agents who were left largely unsupervised. Crucial information — including the fact that trial witness Bill Allen had once bribed a child prostitute, whom he'd had a relationship with, to commit perjury, and that the home repairs in question were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars less than originally alleged — was never given to Stevens' defense team.