In a fatal blow to the corruption case against former Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens, a federal judge granted a Justice Department request to throw out the guilty verdict against Stevens and ordered a criminal investigation into alleged misconduct by the prosecutors tasked with trying the case.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, who rebuked the prosecutors repeatedly during the trial last fall, said today that "For 25 years I've told defendants they'd receive a fair trial… I've never seen such mishandling or misconduct."
Last week, the Justice Department took the extremely rare action to issue a mea culpa and announce its intention to drop the matter after prosecutors had already won a conviction in the high-profile case.
A federal jury in Washington convicted the Alaska Republican, 85, on corruption charges last October, just days before Stevens lost a re-election bid. The prosecution charged that Stevens lied on his Senate financial disclosure forms, in effect concealing $250,000 worth of gifts and home renovations from a wealthy oilman, Bill Allen, and his oil services company, Veco.
Stevens said in court today that he had begun to question his faith in the judicial system, but that the most recent actions taken by Attorney General Eric Holder, Sullivan and new prosecutors who reviewed the case restored that confidence.
"I'm deeply grateful for all you've done," he told the court.
He did not make a formal statement to reporters as he departed the courthouse, but asked how he felt, Stevens said, "Well, if I was Sen. Byrd, I'd say Hallelujah" as he entered a waiting SUV.
West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd is the longest-serving Democrat in the U.S. Senate; Stevens, who had been a senator since 1968, was the longest-serving Republican.
Though Stevens appeared to have had a weight lifted from his shoulders, the judge remained troubled by the allegations of misconduct.
At the hearing, Sullivan clicked through a litany of alleged prosecutorial missteps, including the improper release of a witness who then returned to Alaska, blacking out exculpatory information from an FBI report, withholding a key grand jury transcript and submitting false business records into evidence. Prosecutors have since admitted that some of the moves were "mistakes."
Sullivan made clear his belief that the prosecution withheld evidence that would have completely undermined their case. The prosecution's key witness, Allen, told them that the dollar amount of work on Stevens' Girdwood, Alaska, home was much closer to what the senator said he paid than the larger amount that the government alleged.
If the senator paid for the work, he did not have to report it as a gift -- which strikes at the crux of the case against the former lawmaker.
Additionally, new prosecutors assigned to review the case found discrepancies regarding prosecution interviews with Allen, who suffered brain injuries injuries in a 2001 motorcycle accident, and his trial testimony.
Earlier this year, Sullivan held three members of the trial prosecution team in contempt of court for failing to provide documents to the defense in a post-trial investigation centering on claims of FBI and prosecutorial misconduct in the case.
The original prosecution team "repeatedly failed to meet its obligations," Sullivan said today.