One of the bulwarks of the American justice system is that the ends of a prosecution — putting someone away for doing something wrong — do not necessarily justify the means of doing so. In fact, I would argue that the means are often more important than the ends, particularly in high profile cases which shape citizens’ impressions of our legal system. Because the power of the state is so great and its impact on the lives of its citizens so potentially devestating, I would rather see a guilty person go free than law enforcement or prosecutorial misconduct be rewarded or legitimized. The new Attorney General apparently agrees with me:
The Justice Department moved on Wednesday to drop all charges against former Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, who lost his seat last year just days after being convicted on seven felony counts of ethics violations. The case was one of the most high profile and bitterly fought in a string of corruption investigations into current and former members of Congress. But Justice Department lawyers told a federal court Wednesday that they had discovered a new instance of prosecutorial misconduct, on top of earlier disclosures that had raised questions about the way the case was handled, and asked that the convictions be voided.
The attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., said he would not seek a new trial.
I didn’t follow the Stevens case all that closely, but my sense of things was that the withheld evidence was not necessarily anything that would exonerate Stevens, even if it was stuff that the defense could have used to attack the witnesses against Stevens. Put differently, Stevens may still very well have broken the ethics’ laws, but the government has made the judgment that they’re willing to let the conviction drop because the process of obtaining it was obviously tainted.
Mr. Novitzky’s detractors, mainly the defendants and their lawyers, say he is biased and unfair. They say he has a vendetta against Mr. Bonds, is seeking fame and financial gain from the case, and puts words into suspects’ mouths. They say he has lied in sworn reports, including on the initial search warrant affidavit that kick-started the investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative and its many famous clients.
Since May, Mr. Bonds’s lawyer, Michael Rains, has accused Mr. Novitzky of lying in the court documents used to obtain much of the evidence gathered against Mr. Bonds, according to letters obtained by The New York Times. Mr. Novitzky’s credibility, motives and methods have been the subject of correspondence between Mr. Rains and the United States attorney’s office in San Francisco.
Those accusations against Novitzsky are old, and they have not derailed the case — bad evidence and Greg Anderson’s refusal to testify have done that — but it’s worth noting that the misconduct of the Stevens’ prosecutors did not prevent that case from going to trial either. There, as in most tainted prosecutions, the scrutiny came later.
The Bonds’ prosecutors has bought some time by appealing the judge’s evidence ruling. In light of the U-turn on the Stevens case, however, one wonders if, in addition to researching and writing an appellate brief, they also aren’t reflecting on whether the whole enterprise is worth the trouble in the first place.