Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) proposed legislation today that would require federal prosecutors to disclose evidence favorable to the defense.
The Alaska Republican’s announcement appeared timed to coincide with the release, also today, of a more than 500 page investigative report detailing the “systematic concealment” of evidence by prosecutors in the case against her late friend and mentor, Ted Stevens.
The “Fairness in Disclosure of Evidence Act of 2012″ would require prosecutors in federal criminal cases to disclose the exculpatory evidence in a timely manner or face repercussions, including a dismissal, ordering a new trial or excluding evidence, among other sanctions, according to the bill. At present, the Justice Department leaves the decision of what evidence counts as “exculpatory” to the discretion of prosecutors.
“While the injustices that were done to Senator Stevens may have provided the impetus for the focus on this important issue, this bill is not about seeking vindication for Ted,” Murkowski said in a news release. “It’s about learning the vital lessons from the Justice Department’s failure of his prosecution and making our criminal justice system work the way our Constitution envisioned that it would.”
The bill has bi-partisan support, with Senators Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) all co-sponsoring the legislation, according to the release. Begich defeated Stevens in the 2008 election.
Advocacy groups from both sides of the political spectrum have already signaled support for the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Lisa A. Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, praised the bill today in a statement, hailing the “Senate’s efforts to promote fairness in the legal discovery process.”
“In recent years, federal courts have overturned a string of high-profile convictions… after seasoned prosecutors failed to disclose evidence favorable to the defense,” Rickard said in the statement. “Under current Supreme Court precedent, individual and business defendants may never learn that potentially exculpatory evidence exists, and remedies for disclosure failures are also limited. This bill would remedy that injustice.”
Murkowski and her father, former Alaska Sen. and Gov. Frank Murkowski, were close friends of Stevens. Murkowski had harsh words for Attorney General Eric Holder and the department’s bungling of the Stevens case at a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting last week.
In a report released today, special investigator Henry F. Schuelke III found that the public corruption prosecution of Stevens was plagued with “astonishing” lapses of judgment, including the “systematic conceleament of significant exculpatory evidence.” The Justice Department sought to dismiss the case and vacate the conviction against Stevens after it was revealed prosecutors did not disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense at trial. Stevens, the longest serving Republican senator, lost his Senate seat shortly after the conviction.
Updated: This story was updated to include information from Murkowski’s news release.