Former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens has been so ill served by the criminal-justice system that his guilt or innocence of the actual charges is almost irrelevant.
Stevens, 85, was, until his defeat last November, the Senate’s longest-serving Republican and an institution in his home state, which had re-elected him almost automatically since 1968. He was willful, highhanded and totally unabashed about the vast amounts of federal money he earmarked for Alaska, including that lasting symbol of pork politics, the $320 million Bridge to Nowhere.
The senator did many favors for people in his state and the feds charged him with accepting a few favors — $250,000 in home renovations — in return, and lying about them on Senate financial-disclosure forms.
Throughout the trial, the prosecution was dogged by missteps. At one point, the judge held the Justice Department in contempt, calling the prosecutors’ conduct "outrageous." An FBI agent on the case filed a whistleblower complaint against the prosecutors. The department even took the extraordinary step of replacing its entire prosecutorial team.
Nonetheless, a week before the election, Stevens was convicted and went on to narrowly lose his seat. Guilt by association with Stevens might have cost some other Republicans their seats as well. And Stevens might be in prison now except that the judge, angered by the prosecutors’ conduct, repeatedly delayed sentencing.
After finding out this week that the prosecutors had failed to turn over a key piece of evidence to the defense, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder directed the department to ask the judge to dismiss the charges against Stevens and throw out his conviction.
Holder has promised that his department will conduct "a thorough review" of the entire matter. Stevens, the voters of Alaska and the general public, jarred by revelations out of the department the last eight years, are all owed an explanation of how this happened in the first place, and how it went on so long despite all the warning flags.