Analysis: Case's End Doesn't Mean Stevens Is Vindicated

(AP Photo/Al Grillo)

Safe? Yes. Innocent? Hardly.

Hold on, Governor Sarah Palin. Just because federal prosecutors wisely decided to drop their successful corruption case against Ted Stevens doesn't mean that the former Alaska senator has been vindicated, much less exonerated. So not only does a new senate race up there have no political chance it has no legal or logical foundation, either.

Fraud and deception in the government's case, however inexcusable, doesn't magically erase from the world of our memory (or the universe of proof) those incriminating audio-taped conversations between Stevens his buddy, Bill Allen, that helped persuade federal jurors in Washington last fall to convict the legendary politician of failing to accurate file financial statements. The Justice Department may have tainted itself before and during the Stevens trial. But it did not taint all facets of the government's case against the man.

Stevens is dreaming a little dream if he truly believes, as he said last week, that he "always knew that there would be a day when the cloud that surrounded me would be removed. That day has finally come."

Actually, no, it hasn't. There are still plenty of dark clouds covering this scene. And Gov. Palin, too, is trying to turn logic around by morphing Stevens into some sort of a martyr.

"What a horrible thing he has endured," she declared. "The blatant attempts by adversaries to destroy one's reputation, career and finances are an abuse of our well-guarded process and violate our God-given rights afforded in the Constitution."

Stevens may have been forced to spend more money defending himself than he might have spent had Bush-era prosecutors played it fair last year. And perhaps he would have been acquitted had the bad evidence not been introduced (or had prosecutors turned over to the defense the information they were supposed to turn over). But his sleazy relationship with Allen was inglorious (if not unethical) and his conversations with the oil company executive were unbecoming (if not criminal).

If Stevens is a victim, his wounds were, in part at least, self-inflicted. The absence of integrity on the part of prosecutors does not translate into the presence of integrity within Stevens. The world doesn't work that way and no one should pretend that it does. Stevens could have conceded wrong-doing months before the election; he could have taken responsibility for his conduct. He could have avoided a trial. He didn't. And he paid for that choice with the end of his long career in politics.

This last twist in this sad story would have been huge political and legal news had it been a Democratic Justice Department that had pushed beyond constitutional limits to convict Stevens in advance of his re-election bid. But it wasn't. The law simply doesn't give defeated candidates a chance at a do-over when they lose a valid election, even if they lose it in creepy circumstances like this.

Andrew Cohen is CBS News Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor.. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.