Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Ted Stevens' Charges Dropped: A Tale of Two Justice Systems

By Joshua Holland, AlterNet

Posted on April 1, 2009, Printed on April 1, 2009

Editor's note: this originally appeared on AlterNet's blog, PEEK.

It's immaterial that former Alaska senator Ted Stevens was a loathsome, quasi-corrupt slug of a human being (not sure a slug can be called "cantankerous," as Stevens was routinely described, but let's let that slide). Justice was served today with Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to request that the charges against Stevens be dropped. Prosecutors played fast-and-loose with the rules, they withheld evidence from the defense -- among other charges of prosecutorial misconduct -- and now the Ethics Division lawyers who prosecuted the case appear to be facing ethics investigations themselves.

And now the old senate stalwart will spend his retirement bouncing those grand-kids on his knee instead of staring out at the world from behind prison bars.

But the case also highlights the fact that we have -- and have always had -- two justice systems, one for those with the means to work it and the other for the rest of us.

Let's be clear about one thing: although Stevens is now "innocent" in the eyes of the law, there is no reason to believe that he didn't, in fact, receive tens of thousands of dollars in undisclosed gifts from Alaska tycoon Bill Allen. In fact, the final straw that broke the case was the disclosure that prosecutors had withheld notes from an interview with Allen in which the latter had estimated the value of the goods he'd given Stevens at $80,000 rather than the approximately $250,000 prosecutors had claimed.

But, again, it was a serious misstep, and justice was served by overturning the conviction. Yet, reading about the case, I was struck by the question of what might have resulted from such a prosecutorial breach had Stevens not been a powerful, wealthy and -- let's not gloss over it -- white defendant.

I thought about the case of Madison Hobley. Hobley was sentenced to death for arson and murder. Prosecutors said he'd set his house ablaze, leading to the deaths of his family. The case rested primarily on a confession Hobley purportedly made to police, the testimony of a gas station attendant who said he'd sold Hobley a buck's worth of gas in a can, and the can itself.

Hobley, who had no previous criminal record, claimed he'd been forced to confess by four Chicago cops who'd chained him, beat him, kicked him and suffocated him with a plastic bag. The officers denied the charges. They said they'd taken notes during the confession, but they'd then spilled "liquid" on them and threw them into the trash.

Prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense. At a lineup, the gas station attendant had been unsure whether the man who'd bought the gas was in fact Hobley. More seriously still, prosecutors didn't disclose the fact that there was a fingerprint found on the gas can that didn't belong to Hobley.

Hobley's experience was by no means an isolated case. According to the Innocence Project, there have been dozens of similar ones. A local news report had "previously found that a secret audit of the Chicago Police Department’s evidence room showed that 'hundreds of thousands of items were mishandled,' and 'guns, drugs and crime scene evidence are missing.'"

Hobley spent 16 years in prison before being pardoned in 2003. He now lives life as a free man. Troy Davis, whose case is probably more familiar to most readers, hasn't been so fortunate.

Davis sits on death row, almost 20 years after being convicted of killing a police officer in 1989. The case rested only on the testimony of eyewitnesses. Of the 9 people who fingered Davis as the shooter, 7 have since recanted or contradicted their testimony, citing "police coercion" leading up to the trial. One was a 16 year-old who was told by cops that he could be tried as an accessory to the crime if he didn't identify Davis. Another swore in an affidavit: "I told the detective that Troy Davis was the shooter, even though the truth was that I didn't know who shot the officer."

One of the two witnesses who didn't change his story was Sylvester Coles, who was originally a suspect in the crime. Nine witnesses, including five of those who identified Davis as the killer, have since fingered Coles as the killer.

The other witness who stuck with his story was Steve Sanders, who told police on the night of the crime that he couldn't "recognize the shooter," but then identified Davis with confidence at his trial two years later. Davis' lawyers have been unable to interview Sanders about the contradictory testimony.

Troy Davis' innocence or guilt is almost an afterthought as far as the judicial system is concerned -- he's been denied even an evidentiary hearing all the way to the Supreme Court (he is currently awaiting a decision on a new appeal). According to a The Washington Post, Georgia "prosecutors Spencer Lawton and David Lock argued that under Georgia law it was too late to present the recantations as evidence in an extraordinary motion for new trial, and, in addition, claimed that the 'submitted affidavits are insufficient to raise doubts as to the constitutionality of the result at trial.'"

This is par for the course since the mid-1990s. As Time Magazine noted:

One of Davis' major obstacles has been the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), legislation championed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as part of his Contract with America and signed by former President Bill Clinton. The act was passed in 1996 as a way of reforming what Gingrich called "the current interminable, frivolous appeals process." Its major provisions reduced new trials for convicted criminals and sped up their sentences by restricting a federal court's ability to judge whether a state court had correctly interpreted the U.S. Constitution.

234 people convicted of death penalty offenses have been freed after DNA evidence proved their innocence, but many, many others are just trying to get a court to review their cases.

There are many differences between the facts of Stevens' case and those of Madison Hobley, Troy Davis or dozens of similar ones. But if you believe that Davis, Hobley and those others -- and their families -- would have suffered through the same years of agony if they'd been Washington power-brokers with the best legal teams money could buy, then you just don't understand the true meaning of "American justice."

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet.

This article originally appeared on AlterNet, and is reposted with permission of the author. Original link:

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login