An Innocent Man

Published: April 13, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
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“Some people hope for a miracle cure
Some people just accept the world as it is
But I’m not willing to lay down and 
die
Because I am an innocent man…”
            – Billy Joel, “Innocent Man,” 1983

Considering the “cure” that happened last week when a federal judge dismissed the ethics conviction against former Senator Ted Stevens, it would seem that the Billy Joel song would be a shoe-in as Stevens’s new theme song.

But we’re left with a question: If a judge tosses out your conviction based on misconduct by the prosecution, are you innocent of the charges?

Brendan Sullivan, Stevens’s chief lawyer said, “His name is cleared.  He is innocent of the charges as if they had never been brought.”

But is that really true?

Technically, Stevens is innocent because, although he was found guilty by a jury, the prosecutors did not abide by legal procedures of discovery.

However, in an April 12 article in the New York Times “Professor Joshua Dressler of Ohio State University law school said… that the failure to be convicted in a criminal trial does not, by itself, confer innocence on someone.”

“‘The decision by the judge to dismiss the case is certainly not a statement that the defendant is innocent,’ Professor Dressler said, ‘but that the prosecutors didn’t play by the rules, and for that reason alone we have to use this strong remedy’ to deter other prosecutors from similar misbehavior,” the Times wrote.

Two jurors, however, have stated that dismissal due to the prosecutors’ misconduct does not make Senator Stevens innocent, in their eyes.

Alternate juror, Brian Kirst “…said he was strongly leaning toward conviction… because he believed that the defense had done little to rebut the basic accusations that Mr. Stevens had been given lots of gifts and never reported them.

“Colleen Walsh, one of the jurors who convicted Mr. Stevens, said on her personal blog of the trial’s collapse, ‘The only thing this proves is that the prosecution messed everything up.  You may be innocent on corruption charges which were never brought up,’ she wrote on her blog as if talking directly to Stevens.  ‘But you are still guilty of not disclosing some of your major gifts to the public.’”

The mistakes made by the prosecutors had to do with information regarding Bill Allen, a contractor and friend of Stevens “…who, the government said, provided $250,000 worth of goods and services to upgrade the senator’s Alaska residence.

“Prosecutors failed to provide defense lawyers with interview notes in which Mr. Allen told them that he believed Mr. Stevens would have paid for things if he had been sent a bill and that the renovations were worth only about $80,000.

“More important, prosecutors did not disclose that Mr. Allen did not recall in early interviews something he later testified about at trial — that he had been told by a Stevens emissary that Mr. Stevens did not want a bill and only asked for one to cover himself.”

Based on the misconduct, Attorney General Eric Holder asked that the convictions be voided.

Speaking with an attorney-friend about the issue, she offered the following:  “Government prosecutors are powerful.  Our system will not survive if we don’t hold them to strict scrutiny and the highest ethical standards.  If we don’t, we risk becoming like too many other countries in the world where you must prove your innocence or the government will bury you.

“I am not saying Stevens is a good guy or bad guy, but if they can get him, what about you or me?”

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