Prosecutors seriously bungled evidence and witnesses but Sen. Ted Stevens' corruption trial will proceed as planned, a federal judge ruled Thursday.There are a number of significant changes between last year's trials and this trial: a different judge, a different venue, a different chief of the prosecution, and a different defense attorney, this one with a team. I've only taken in the trial through the news reports and blogs, but here are some hypotheses that ought to be explored further by those on the scene.
1. The Judge. Judge Sedwick in Anchorage was always very calm, and even when he admonished attorneys, he showed, at his worst, only annoyance. The Anchorage based prosecutors have worked with him often over the years. My reaction to the judge during the trials was that he was scrupulously fair and reasonable, but that was based on my novice court observer perspective. Looking back, he was an Alaskan judge who voiced clear concern for the people of Alaska given the corruption of their legislators and when discussing the sentencing guidelines, he weighed the violation of the people's trust heavily against the defendants.
Judge Sullivan, from the news reports, has been much more demonstrative in voicing his displeasure with the prosecution. Is he legitimately giving them less slack than did Sedwick? Does he just enjoy wielding his power? Is he making sure that if there is an appeal, that he can't be accused of favoring the prosecution? I have no idea, I'm just trying to spin out the possibilities.
2. Venue. Having the trial in DC means that the jury's knowledge of and relationship with the defendant is much different from an Anchorage jury's would be. The racial make up of the jury - predominantly black - could make a difference. The prosecutors would appear to think so since they added a new chief of the prosecution - a black woman - and the defense has a black attorney too. And the judge is black. While this may or may not impact the trial (I used the assumption that it would by whites as a lead into a discussion of race and the presidential election in a previous post) in general, it doesn't seem to have a direct relationship to the question of the prosecution's reported bungling.
3 Chief of the prosecution. The team in Anchorage seemed to know everything (about the case, about the procedures, etc.) and to be ready for any contingency. Was there something about the new head of the prosecution that affected the way the case was run? She hadn't been visibly involved with the previous trials and now was the lead. Were there disagreements among the team members and this is causing loss of the laser like focus they seemed to have in Anchorage? Again, this is simply speculation, not based on any hard evidence, but just looking at what has changed.
4. Defense attorney, this one with a team. Brendan Sullivan is characterized as one of the best criminal defense attorneys in the country and one of the most expensive. Is it just that the prosecution is up against a better attorney this time? Or that they are up against a much bigger team of attorneys with far more resources than the previous legal defense teams? That there is more of a level playing field this time?
Another, more disturbing thought is the possibility that someone on the defense team has intentionally botched things up. Given the Justice Department's various breaches during this Administration - from using partisan political tests of applicants to firing attorneys for not pursuing politically motivated investigations and everything in-between - one cannot rule this out totally. Again, this is merely speculation, as I try to map out the possible explanations for why what seemed like a well oiled legal machine was found to have sand in its gears for this trial.
Ultimately, we may never know, which of these, or which combination of these, led to the actions that raised the judge's ire. And it may not even matter. The jury will get this case Monday or Tuesday. We should have a verdict by the end of next week if not sooner. If Stevens is found guilty, it won't matter to the public. But I would hope the prosecution, which still has some indictments up its sleeve, will figure it out, if they haven't already.