Justice, not convictions, more important

Alaska and America watched the trial of Sen.Ted Stevens play out in the fall of 2008. We have watched it unravel ever since. Five months after the guilty verdict, the attorney general moved to dismiss the conviction after revelations that prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that demonstrated Stevens' innocence.

As U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan explained, the prosecutorial misconduct "came to light only after an FBI agent filed a complaint alleging prosecutorial and other law enforcement misconduct, a new attorney general took office, and a new prosecutorial team was appointed." When he vacated the conviction, Judge Sullivan said he had "never seen mishandling and misconduct like what I have seen."

Worse still, Sullivan added that he had seen a "troubling tendency" over the years of prosecutors bending, twisting and breaking rules to help their cases.

The Stevens case continues to motivate several investigations into abuses by Department of Justice lawyers. A nearly 500-page report on professional misconduct ordered by Judge Sullivan is due to be made public March 15, but one prosecutor whose conduct was scrutinized in the report has appealed to prevent the release. The Justice Department's internal investigation continues.

The report will undoubtedly shed light on the effort by some government attorneys to deny Sen. Stevens a fair trial -- an effort that Judge Sullivan's independent investigating counsel has already described as "willful and intentional." But it will not fix the serious underlying problem: the failure to disclose evidence indicating Stevens' innocence.

The government's obligation to disclose such evidence derives from the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland, but the so-called Brady obligation has been reinterpreted in dozens of rulings and there is no consistent Brady rule. There are 97 different Brady rules in federal judicial districts across the nation.

This week I will introduce legislation to restore justice to our judicial system. My bill will obligate federal prosecutors to disclose evidence favorable to the defense and disclose it early in the process. It gives federal judges a broad range of remedies if the government fails to meet its obligations, and encourages appellate courts to overturn convictions if it is proven that the government hid the ball.

It is the solemn responsibility of federal prosecutors to secure justice -- not simply convictions. It is the responsibility of the government to prove an individual's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and if the government cannot, it is expected to voluntarily abandon the case. To keep Americans' faith in the system we must raise the standards for government prosecutors and cut the chances that we will see the same "hide the ball" tactics Sen. Stevens faced.

The Stevens case was not unique.

Dr. Ali Shaygan of Florida was charged with unlawfully dispensing prescriptions. After serious ethical breaches by the prosecutors came to light, the judge in that case rebuked them for "knowingly and willfully disobeying" court orders and conducting "unethical behavior not befitting the role of a prosecutor." Lindsey Manufacturing, a small business in California, had to fight prosecutors who lied to get a search warrant, conducted illegal searches and gave incorrect testimony to the grand jury. To cover up the misconduct, the prosecution failed to give defense lawyers grand jury transcripts to which they were entitled. The judge threw out the charges and criticized the government's lawyers for an "unusual and extreme picture of a prosecution gone awry" -- but the proceedings cost the company millions.

If a small Alaska business faced such a scenario, they'd likely go out of business in the process of regaining their good name.

Enough is enough.

When his conviction was overturned, Sen. Stevens said, "What some members of the prosecution team did nearly destroyed my faith." Ted Stevens was a life-long public servant. He and all Americans deserve to have full faith in the judicial system in this country.

We cannot allow the government to have a finger on the scales of justice. My bill will ensure that another legacy of the Alaskan of the 20th Century is fairness and justice for the centuries ahead.

Lisa Murkowski has served in the U.S. Senate since 2002.