April 8th, 2009
01:26 PM ET

Inside the courtroom – The Justice Department accused

Editor’s Note: In a federal courtroom yesterday, a furious judge dismissed the charges against former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and launched a criminal investigation of the prosecutors who bungled the case. That’s the headline; here are the details, as reported by CNN’s Terry Frieden

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/04/07/ted.stevens/art.ted.stevens.gi.jpg caption="Stevens and his wife, Catherine, arrive Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Washington."]

Terry Frieden
CNN Justice Producer

This was a truly extraordinary hearing, and very dark day for the entire Justice Department. Those in the courtroom were treated to high drama, yet tragically no cameras were allowed.

Judge Emmett Sullivan, and then defense attorney Brendan Sullivan, Stevens’s chief counsel and no relation to the judge, each gave a very lengthy, emotional, blistering, truly devastating summary of the government's very serious failures in the Stevens case. Paul O’Brien, leader of the new prosecution team that replaced the original members after problems in the case surfaced, stood briefly to apologize totally and did not disagree with any of the criticism.

Stevens then gave a fairly straight forward, not particularly emotional statement:

To the judge: "Your dedication to public service is an inspiration to me, and without your experience and vigilance, the truth would never have been known.”

To his former constituents: "I would also like to thank the countless Alaskans who have offered me their prayers and encouragement. I am blessed and honored to have served them as their Senator for the last 40 years.”

To the original prosecution team: "Until recently, my faith in the criminal justice system was unwavering. But what some members of this prosecution team did nearly destroyed my faith. Their conduct has consequences they must know can never be reversed. But today, Your Honor, through your leadership and commitment to the rule of law, my faith has been restored, and for that I can never thank you enough. Your actions give me new hope that others may be spared from similar miscarriages of justice.”

"It is my hope that when the dust settles, I will encourage the enactment of legislation to reform laws relating to the responsibilities and duties of those entrusted with the solemn task of enforcing federal criminal laws.

Thank you.”

But it will be the words of Brendan Sullivan, and words and actions of Judge Emmet Sullivan that will be remembered.

Judge Sullivan complained that the Justice Department's internal investigation by the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) which disciplines federal prosecutors had been going on for six months and he had not heard anything about it, other than two references in court in October and December. In those cases the original trial team said basically you don't need to worry about any errors we may have committed because OPR is thoroughly investigating.

Judge Sullivan, outraged that there had been nothing released publicly from the Justice investigation, declared, "The silence is deafening".

"In nearly 25 years on the bench, I've never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I've seen in this case."

"It (to get to the truth) should not depend on a new Administration, a new attorney general, a new trial team, but on the government's commitment to pursue prosecutions fairly."

"This court has an independent obligation to see that any misconduct is addressed, so I will initiate an investigation, criminal contempt proceedings....I have not pre-judged the prosecutors. I hope we find no intentional obstruction of justice. I expect the government will fully cooperate with this investigation."

The judge then said, "This court has an independent obligation to see that any misconduct is addressed." He announced he would initiate criminal contempt proceedings against SIX members of the original prosecution team, and named them: William Welch, Brenda Morris, Joseph Botini, Nicholas Marsh, Jim Goeke, and Edward Sullivan (no relation to the judge or Stevens’s lead attorney).

Judge Sullivan did not explain why he named these attorneys while not mentioning others who perhaps he might have been expected to include. Of the six, William Welch is the current Section Chief of the Office of Public Integrity - as he was during the time that the original prosecution team was handling the case. And a second individual on that list, Brenda Morris, we are told is still the Deputy Section Chief under Welch. The other four are line attorneys. All are career prosecutors. The Office of Public Integrity, which handles all public corruption cases, reports to the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division (now Acting Asst. A.G. Rita Glavin, who appointed the new team) and then up to the Attorney General and Dep. Attorney General.

Judge Sullivan said he has already selected Henry Schuelke III to lead the investigation and fully expects the Justice Department to provide all the materials Schuelke will need. He added, "I have not pre-judged the prosecutors. I hope he finds no intentional obstruction of justice."

Yesterday, a Department of Justice spokesperson said, “we will review the order regarding an investigation of prosectuors’ conduct and will continue to cooperate with the court on this matter.”

In the courtroom, the government prosecutor, Paul O'Brien said, "We deeply regret this occurred. We apologize to the court this occurred."

He did not try in any way to justify the conduct by the previous prosecution team. O'Brien was the only prosecutor to speak; he was joined in the courtroom by two other members of the new prosecution team–David Jaffe and William Stuckwich. All three men were greatly praised by both the judge and the defense for having found and turned over within a matter of about five weeks what the previous team had failed to disclose in more than a year.

And in an extraordinarily rare moment, Senator Stevens, when he entered the courtroom, walked over to the prosecution table. The three members of the new prosecution team stood, and Stevens shook hands with each of them.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Justice Department • Terry Frieden
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    Depending on whose side you favor-–the Senator got screwed by the Justice System-–and even though the convinction was vacated---when you get "screwed,"--you cannot get "unscrewed."

    April 8, 2009 at 3:28 pm |