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Late Thursday the Justice Department announced it had asked a federal appeals court to return to the district court cases arising from the convictions of two Alaska state representatives, given concerns about serious misconduct by Bush-era prosecutors. The Department also said it was asking that the two politicians, state representative Victor Kohring and former speaker Peter Kott, be released from prison on their own recognizance. In a statement explaining the decision, Attorney General Eric Holder stated: “After a careful review of these cases, I have determined that it appears that the department did not provide information that should have been disclosed to the defense. When we make mistakes, it is our duty to admit and correct those mistakes.” Holder’s predecessor, Michael B. Mukasey, had failed to take any action on the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, even after the judge handling the Stevens case brought them to his attention.
The prosecution of Kohring and Kott was closely tied to the case against former Alaska senator Ted Stevens, involving some of the same witnesses and evidence as the Stevens case. It apparently grew out of the Stevens investigation. The Kohring and Kott prosecution was handled by the same team of Public Integrity Section lawyers who handled the Stevens case, including section chief William M. Welch II, Joseph Bottini, James Goeke, Nicholas Marsh, and Edward Sullivan. A special prosecutor has now been appointed to investigate the possibility of bringing criminal charges against the prosecutors over their misconduct.
Holder’s decision to seek release of the convicted lawmakers suggests a lack of confidence on his part that the convictions will ultimately stand. He has probably decided to fully acquaint the district court with the errors made in the trial before taking further action. The judge may conclude the evidence withheld was not material to the case or would not have affected the outcome, but Holder’s decision already suggests he believes otherwise. In that case, a new trial or a decision by the prosecution to vacate the convictions and abandon the case—as occurred in the Stevens case—may follow.
Many of the same Public Integrity prosecutors were also involved in the prosecution of Alabama Governor Don E. Siegelman. In that case a prosecution witness has also leveled charges that prosecutors consciously withheld highly exculpatory evidence from the defense. As in the Stevens case, the prosecutors involved denied the charges.
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”