Alaska and America watched the trial of Senator Ted Stevens play out in the fall of 2008. We have watched it unravel ever since. As we all recall, five months after the guilty verdict was rendered, the Attorney General moved to dismiss the conviction against Sen. Stevens after it was revealed that the prosecution team failed to disclose evidence in its possession that demonstrated Sen. Stevens' innocence. As US District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan explains it, 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." In the 14 minutes of remarks delivered when he vacated the conviction against Stevens, 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 the rules to help their cases.
The Stevens case continues to be the motivating factor for several investigations into abuses of Department of Justice lawyers who tried Senator Stevens. A nearly 500-page report ordered by Judge Sullivan is due to be released to the public on March 15th, to give a close look at the professional misconduct of these men and women charged with executing the law, but a Justice Department prosecutor whose conduct was scrutinized in the report has filed an emergency appeal to prevent the release. The Justice Department's internal investigation continues.
While the 500-page report will undoubtedly shed sunlight on the effort by some government attorneys to deny Senator Stevens a fair trial -- an effort which Judge Sullivan's independent investigating counsel has already described as "willful and intentional," it will not fix the serious underlying problem with the Stevens trial: the failure to disclose evidence indicating Stevens' innocence.
The government's obligation to disclose such evidence derives from the 1963 US Supreme Court case "Brady v Maryland," but the so-called Brady obligation has been reinterpreted in dozens of federal court rulings over the years and there is no consistent Brady rule. In fact, there are 97 different Brady rules in federal judicial districts across the nation. Legal experts say that Brady practices differ widely between judicial districts, and even within some US Attorney's offices.
This week I will introduce legislation to restore justice to the American judicial system. My bill will obligate federal prosecutors to disclose evidence that is favorable to the defense and disclose it early in the process. It gives federal judges a broad range of remedies to address the government's failure to meet its obligations, and it encourages appellate courts to overturn convictions if it is proven after a guilty judgment is entered that the government hid the ball.
It is the solemn responsibility of federal prosecutors to secure justice -- not simply convictions. Under our judicial system, it is the responsibility of the government to prove an individual's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and if the government cannot do that it is expected to voluntarily abandon the case. It is critical to Americans' faith in the system that we raise the standards for government prosecutors and cut down on the chances that we will see the same "hide the ball" tactics Senator Stevens faced.
The Stevens case was not unique, though we wish it were. As Sullivan pointed out, federal prosecutors' "troubling tendency" touches lives and businesses across our country. There was the case of Dr. Ali Shaygan of Florida, who 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 them millions. If a small Alaskan 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 trial's decision was overturned, Senator 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, and my bill will make sure that another legacy of the Alaskan of the Twentieth Century is fairness and justice for the centuries ahead.
Senator Lisa Murkowski joined the U.S. Senate in 2002. Born in Ketchikan and raised in Wrangell, Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage, she is the first Alaskan-born senator to serve the state.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.