Judge tosses out Stevens conviction
WASHINGTON - A federal judge dismissed the corruption conviction of former Sen. Ted Stevens on Tuesday and took the rare and serious step of opening a criminal investigation into prosecutors who mishandled the case.
"In nearly 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.
Sullivan appointed a special prosecutor to investigate Justice Department lawyers who repeatedly mishandled witnesses and withheld evidence from defense attorneys during the monthlong trial that ended with Stevens' conviction in October.
The case cost Stevens a Senate seat he had held for 40 years. Once the Senate's longest-serving Republican, he narrowly lost to Democrat Mark Begich shortly after the verdict.
"Until recently, my faith in the criminal system, particularly the judicial system, was unwavering," Stevens told the court Tuesday, his first public comments since Attorney General Eric Holder announced he would drop the case. "But what some members of the prosecution team did nearly destroyed my faith. Their conduct had consequences for me that they will never realize and can never be reversed."
Sullivan appointed Washington attorney Henry Schuelke as a special prosecutor to investigate contempt and obstruction by the Justice Department team.
He said the matter was too serious to be left to an internal investigation by the department, which he said has dragged its feet looking into the misconduct.
In a criminal case, the prosecutors could face prison time and fines. The decision raises the question of whether the prosecutors, who include the top two officials in the department's public corruption unit, can remain on the job while under criminal investigation.