Former Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) benefitted this morning from the exquisite timing of perennial politics. His corruption case didn't fall between the cracks of the Bush and Obama Administrations so much as it bridged the legal and partisan gulf between what the old regime did and what the new regime wants to do when it comes to professionalism at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department.
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder himself declared that he had reviewed the record of the Stevens' case and was not willing or able to continue to defend it in court against allegations that government lawyers and investigators improperly withheld evidence from the Stevens' defense team—and even apparently fabricated evidence that was shown to jurors! As a result, the old pol's conviction melts away, his looming date with a federal prison cell gets scratched from the schedule, and he will forever be able to argue to his fans and family and friends that he was railroaded.
The Bush Administration had "successfully" prosecuted Stevens last fall on charges that he had failed to properly report gifts given to him by a lobbyist. And then for months afterward the government had defended the jury's verdicts against efforts from Stevens' attorneys to get a new trial. It's a dynamic that happens all the time in criminal cases—our law books are filled with decisions about the constitutional rule that requires prosecutors to turn over to defense attorneys any evidence that could potentially exculpate their client.
Usually, the government wins the close cases in this area of the law. And even when the feds lose it takes years and years for the courts to decide what's right and what's wrong and who gets a new trial. Had the Obama Administration chosen to fight Stevens' move for a new trial the matter would have been tied up in the courts for a year or two longer even though the government itself now has admitted that it is finding new evidence now that Stevens' trial was unfair and improper.
A drawn-out court battle didn't happen here for one very obvious reason. Between Stevens' conviction last year, and his scheduled sentencing later this year, the Justice Department changed hands. Because Holder owes little fealty to Bush-era decisions at Justice—indeed, because he has taken strong steps to separate himself from some of the worst policies and practices of his predecessors—the move to dismiss Stevens' convictions is both a political no-brainer and a legal necessity. It was the right thing to do on many different levels.
Stevens wins by freeing himself from the possibility of prison. Holder wins by appearing as a reasoned leader capable of showing integrity and ethics in helping even a Republican politician avoid an unfair prison sentence. The Justice Department wins by ridding itself of the shame of trying to defend the indefensible in court. And the criminal justice system wins by the disclosure of yet another reminder that cheating government lawyers sometimes get caught. There is no need for outrage. The process was messy but the end result was true.
Andrew Cohen is CBS News Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.