WASHINGTON — A federal judge Tuesday set aside a jury's guilty verdict and the indictment against former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, then announced that he was naming a special prosecutor to investigate whether government attorneys had broken the law by failing to ensure that the Alaska Republican got a fair trial.
"In 25 years on the bench, I've never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I've seen in this case," U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan said in dismissing the case and voiding the verdict.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had asked Sullivan last week to dismiss the verdict and the charges after acknowledging that prosecutors had failed to share with Stevens' attorneys notes from an interview with the prosecution's key witness that contradicted the witness's trial testimony.
Stevens was convicted Oct. 27 of seven counts of failing to disclose gifts, including home renovations, on his Senate financial-disclosure forms. He lost his re-election bid days later.
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Withholding materials that could be helpful to criminal defendants has become a troubling Justice Department trend, Sullivan said, citing Stevens' case and that of a Guantanamo detainee who fought to have his medical records released to his lawyers.
The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating the Stevens prosecution team for the way it conducted the trial, but Sullivan said he wasn't content to allow that internal probe to serve as punishment for the lawyers involved. He said that he'd asked a former military judge, Henry Schuelke III of Washington, to investigate the five prosecutors for potential obstruction of justice charges.
They are: the head of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, William Welch; the lead trial attorney, Brenda Morris; two trial attorneys in the Public Integrity Section, Nicholas Marsh and Edward Sullivan; and two assistant U.S. attorneys in Alaska, Joseph Bottini and James Goeke.
"I have not prejudged these attorneys for their culpability, and I hope the record will find no intentional obstruction of justice," Judge Sullivan said.
Feeling vindicated, the 85-year-old Stevens strode out of the courthouse surrounded by well-wishers, including his three daughters. With their arms draped around one other, they smiled and posed for the throngs of photographers assembled outside the Washington courthouse.
"I'm going to enjoy this beautiful day," Stevens said when he was asked what he'd do next and what message he had for Alaskans. Then, in a reference to one of his exuberant former Senate colleagues, Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, he added, "If I were Senator Byrd, I'd say, 'Hallelujah!' "
Stevens, whose 40 years in the Senate made him the longest-serving Republican in the body's history before he was convicted, spoke briefly at the hearing. He thanked his legal team, his family and Judge Sullivan, telling him that his repeated work to hold prosecutors accountable for their actions restored his faith in the nation's criminal justice system.
Stevens also thanked Alaskans.
"As I traveled around the state, almost every Alaskan said, 'I've said a prayer for you, Ted,' " Stevens said.
No apology ever will be sufficient to make up for the wrongs done to Stevens, said his lead defense attorney, Brendan Sullivan.
"Nothing can be done that will give the citizens of Alaska the senator they surely would have elected," the lawyer said.
All 13 of the attorneys who worked on the case for Stevens appeared in court, five at the defense table with him and eight in a row of chairs lining the courtroom. His family, including his wife, Catherine, and his daughters, Beth, Susan and Lily, sat behind him in the front row of the courtroom.
Brendan Sullivan said he was physically sickened when he learned that prosecutors had failed to turn over notes from an interview last April 15 with the star prosecution witness, Bill Allen.
Allen's company performed much of the work renovating the senator's Alaska home. Whether Stevens disclosed those renovations as a gift was at the core of the charges against him.
Stevens had written a note to Allen in 2002 asking him to talk to Bob Persons, a mutual friend who'd overseen the work, about giving him a bill for the renovations. That note was to have been the underpinning for Stevens' defense.
Allen undercut that approach, however, when he testified that Persons had told him not to worry about a bill. "Ted's just covering his ass," Allen said Persons told him.
The testimony floored Stevens' legal team, Brendan Sullivan said. When he subsequently learned that Allen had told investigators last April that he and Persons had never talked about the billing issue, Sullivan said, he went into "a silent rage."
His team was no match for "corrupt prosecutors" intent on manufacturing evidence, he said.
"It's prosecution to win at all costs, and wrongdoing can flourish if that's the attitude of a leader," Sullivan said.
Judge Sullivan also announced Tuesday that he'd refer a complaint about Allen's attorney to the U.S. attorney's office in Washington for investigation.
Judge Sullivan accused Anchorage lawyer Robert Bundy, who sat in the spectator section of the courtroom while his client testified, of trying to signal to Allen on the stand and help him answer questions from a defense attorney.
Allen, who's pleaded guilty to bribing state lawmakers in Alaska, has yet to be sentenced in his own case.