Transcripts show Stevens turned down a plea offer

BENCH TALK: No jail time if he had pleaded guilty to one felony.

April 14, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens turned down a plea offer that would have spared him a corruption trial and the possibility of imprisonment, according to newly released transcripts of conversations between attorneys and the judge.

Stevens took his chances that a jury would find him innocent and instead pleaded not guilty on the day of the conversations. Three months later, the jury returned a guilty verdict but Stevens recently was cleared of all charges because of prosecutorial misconduct in the case.

When U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan dismissed the charges last week, he also ordered the release of all transcripts of bench conferences held in the case. The plea offer was revealed in the transcript from July 31, 2008.

With prosecutors and defense attorneys gathered in front of him at the bench, Sullivan asked Justice Department attorney Brenda Morris whether the prosecution had offered a plea deal or planned to do so. Stevens attorney Brendan Sullivan interjected that there was a plea offer, but that Morris probably wasn't aware of it because she wasn't present when it was made.

Brendan Sullivan said the offer was for Stevens to plead guilty to one felony count and in exchange serve no jail time. "We turned it down," Stevens' attorney said. He didn't elaborate, but even without imprisonment such a plea deal would likely have cost Stevens the Senate seat he had held for 40 years.

Whatever offer may have been on the table in the past, both sides told the judge they wanted to press ahead with the trial and were not willing to negotiate.

Morris was not aware the deal had been offered, but told the judge: "I'd like to make clear on the record that there is no offer at this point."

Brendan Sullivan responded, "And if one is made, it will not be accepted."

Stevens was in court that day, but wouldn't have heard the conversation along with the rest of the courtroom since it was held at the bench. Stevens didn't speak publicly that day, but during the hearing Brendan Sullivan told the court that the senator wanted a speedy trial that would clear his name before the November election.

Instead, Stevens would be convicted just a few days before voters went to the polls. He narrowly lost re-election.

Sullivan threw out the conviction at the request of the Justice Department, which found that important evidence had not been turned over to Stevens' defense team.

The judge took the extraordinary step of opening an investigation into whether prosecutors broke the law by failing to turn the evidence over. Morris is one of the targets of that investigation.

In response to the judge's criticism of the Justice Department's handling of the case, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Tuesday that he would provide more training to prosecutors on what they must turn over to defendants. He also said he would assign senior prosecutors to review the discovery practices in criminal cases, including the need for improved policies and additional training, staffing and technology to help meet their obligations.

"We will continue to review how cases are managed before, during and after charges are filed, and where there is room for improvement, we will make additional changes," Holder said in a statement.

The plea offer was first reported online by Legal Times.

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