The following opinion, by Father Raymond J. deSouza, was published in The National Post (Canada) on August 12, 2010.
The worst moment of the late Ted Stevens' long political career was the most important.
Senator Stevens died in a plane crash on Monday, having spent forty years in the United States Senate. He devoted himself to bringing home the bacon to Alaska, and by all accounts his pork-barrelling was prodigiously successful. Americans regarded the geriatric senator -- decades in office, gaming the system for ever more extravagant dollops of federal largesse, then proudly cutting the ribbons on projects named in his honour -- as something of a noble figure. They resolutely re-elect such men for tenures that make most crowned heads seem transient.
So entrenched was Stevens that when he was defeated in the 2008 election it was regarded as a career prematurely cut short. Those who marinated in the Senate even longer than he did -- Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd -- were at least allowed the monarch's privilege of dying in office. But Stevens was defeated by the slimmest of margins in 2008, having been convicted in a criminal trial just days before the election.
Stevens was convicted of something relatively minor but still criminal: making false statements on his Senate financial disclosure forms in relation to renovations on his Alaska home. The federal prosecutors -- from the justice department's public integrity section--claimed that Stevens knowingly underpaid for the renovations, rendering them an illegal gift or perhaps a bribe. Stevens was convicted on all counts and lost the 2008 election a week later by a margin of less than 1.5%. A forty year career apparently had ended in disgrace.
Then in February 2009 an FBI whistle-blower revealed that prosecutors had conspired to withhold exculpatory evidence from the defence and had falsified records. In particular, the prosecutors withheld testimony that the cost of the renovations was actually less than Stevens had paid. They also knew that the star witness was likely lying at trial when he said that a friend of Stevens had told him to ignore the senator's request for an invoice.
It was a monstrous miscarriage of justice. Prosecutors at the highest levels of the justice department had deliberately conspired to convict a man who should never have been charged. It was a wrongful conviction, done with malice aforethought. Absent the whistle-blower, the prosecutors would have gotten away with it. Once it was revealed, the attorney general, Eric Holder, withdrew the charges, vacating the conviction. The presiding judge, Emmett Sullivan, called it the worst case of prosecutorial misconduct he had seen in 25 years on the bench and initiated a criminal contempt investigation of the responsible prosecutors.
Ted Stevens was one of most influential senators in Washington. He could not have been prosecuted without the approval of the most senior and experienced lawyers in the justice department. If America's prosecutorial state could grind him up, then no one before American courts is safe from wrongful and malicious prosecution. Throwing innocent people in jail is not an anomaly in the American criminal justice system, but routine practice. Thanks to the whistle-blower we know what was done to Stevens. Imagine what is done daily to the human debris swept off America's streets.
Prosecutors were no doubt eager to take down the giant of Alaska politics. Such a grand prize required more than the usual abuse of state power by the prosecutors, and Ted Stevens would have died this week a convicted felon, absent one FBI agent who was sufficiently disgusted to blow the whistle on his law enforcement colleagues. Stevens' greatest legacy ought not be his artful manipulation of the appropriations system, but rather how his case exposed the top-to-bottom corruption of American criminal justice -- a scandal that ought to shake the rotten system to its foundations.
When Stevens was convicted in 2008, both presidential candidates called for him to resign, as did many of his longtime Senate colleagues. To their shame, they believed the American criminal justice system to be credible. If it wasn't evident before, the Stevens case has made clear that no one should ever be considered guilty solely because of a verdict in an American court. The abuse of prosecutorial and police power is so rampant that a guilty verdict means nothing in itself. No doubt guilty people are indeed convicted, but a person should not be considered guilty solely by reason of his conviction.
In Canada, we should not be smug. We have our own parade of wrongful convictions. Just this week the Ontario government announced niggardly compensation for parents who were wrongfully convicted of molesting and killing their own children. Here the overzealous prosecutors employed the false testimony of an incompetent pathologist. America's shameful justice system should be a warning to us--it can happen here too.