Prosecutors compromised Stevens case

A desire to “win the case” caused Department of Justice prosecutors to hide evidence from former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), according to a court-appointed investigator. 

Senators grilled the investigator, Henry Schuelke III, for nearly two hours over his recently released 525-page report on the botched Stevens case. The report found that federal prosecutors intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence from Stevens’s lawyers. 

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The motivations behind the government’s withholding of evidence in the Stevens case had not been laid out before Schuelke’s testimony on Wednesday, which was aimed at determining whether legislation is needed to prevent another governmental attempt to hide evidence from a defendant. 

Schuelke told lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee that Joseph Bottini and James Goeke, the DOJ prosecutors he found responsible for hiding evidence from Stevens, acted not out of personal malice toward the powerful longtime senator or in an attempt to gain fame, but out of a desire to win the case. 

“Prosecutors, plaintiffs attorneys, defense attorneys … like to win,” said Schuelke, who has worked in all three positions in his career. 

“We do not want to have to undermine our case if it can possibly be avoided. I think that motive to win the case was the principal operative motive. I do not believe that any of the prosecutors, including Mr. Bottini and Mr. Goeke, from Alaska, harbored a personal animus toward Sen. Stevens. 

“I don’t believe that either of them sought fame and glory and that’s the reason they sought to win the case. That’s just not in their personalities, in my judgment. They did, however, want to win the case,” Schuelke said.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) balked at the idea that anything other than justice would motivate a prosecutor. 

“A prosecutor has a unique position in the system,” Leahy said. “They’re not just there to win. I understand what you’re saying: They want to win. But they’re not just there to win, they’re there to make sure justice is done.”

Schuelke’s report did not find criminal fault with the federal prosecutors, saying that the judge in the Stevens case never explicitly instructed the government to turn over all exculpatory evidence. Therefore, the prosecutors didn’t violate a direct court order, he said.

However, the judge refrained from making such an order in large part because it is a well-established and observed practice to hand over exculpatory evidence to the defense, no matter how damning. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a close friend and political ally of Stevens’s, has introduced a bill that would require prosecutors to face penalties from a judge if they did not share evidence with the defense.

Many of the senators pressed Schuelke about the likelihood of a future criminal case being mishandled in the same way.

“How does any citizen know that the Department of Justice won’t abide by similar prosecutorial misconduct in the future?” asked Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Schuelke indicated his support of some of the aims of Murkowski’s bill, but stressed that the DOJ’s actions in the Stevens case were not typical. 

“I do not believe, on the basis of our investigation, that what happened in the Stevens case is representative of what happens in the cases brought by the thousands across this country by the Department of Justice,” he said.

The DOJ has expressed its misgivings about the cooling effect that Murkowski’s bill could have on government witnesses who may not want to come forward with testimony if they believe their past and credibility will be put on trial by defense lawyers, who will have access to it as part of the mandatory disclosure of evidence. 

But a group of 112 legal experts — including nearly 80 former federal prosecutors — sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee ahead of Wednesday’s hearing to express their support for Murkowski’s measure. 

“Self-regulation by the DOJ has been tried and has failed. It is ultimately not a solution to the injustices that continue to occur,” wrote the signatories of the letter, which was organized by the Constitution Project, a D.C.-based bipartisan think tank.

In 2008, Stevens was convicted for failing to disclose a series of home renovations he received from an oil executive. His conviction came about one week before voters went to the polls, causing him to narrowly lose his reelection bid that year. Stevens died in a plane crash in 2010. 

In his report, Schuelke found that prosecutors inflated the worth of the home renovations Stevens had done by more than three times the actual value, in an effort to paint a more egregious offense. Prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense about the true worth of the renovations, including testimony from the government’s key witness on the matter, said Stevens’s lawyers.

The prosecution also did not hand over evidence from Stevens’s defense team that could have discredited the government’s key witness by calling attention to his alleged relations with a teenage prostitute.

In his first months as attorney general, Eric Holder dismissed the indictment against Stevens and asked a federal judge to set aside the guilty verdict after reviewing evidence suggesting the DOJ’s witnesses might have perjured themselves and that the government withheld evidence from the defense team. 

Holder ordered a separate report by the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which is expected to be completed soon. Senators are pushing hard for its public release.