Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Indicted on Conspiracy, Obstruction, and Perjury Charges Related to Trial Conduct
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino was indicted on conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury charges related to his conduct as lead trial counsel in the so-called "Detroit Terrorism Trial" in which two defendants were convicted on terrorism charges only to have the government request that the verdicts be thrown out because the theory of prosecution was unsupported (indictment below). State Department Agent Harry Smith, who was one of the government's key witnesses, is also charged. The prosecution began shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks when a search of a Detroit apartment turned up evidence believed to be related to a terrorist cell. Among the evidence used at trial was a hand-written drawing of what the government asserted was the Queen Alia Military Hospital in Jordan; the notebook in which the drawing was found contained the Arabic writings "Queen Alia" and "Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan." Convertino and Smith viewed the hospital, and Smith attempted to take pictures of the facility. When those pictures did not turn out, he requested that another State Department agent in Jordan take digital pictures of the hospital, which were eventually e-mailed to Convertino before the trial. At trial, however, Smith testified in response to Convertino's questions that no pictures of the hospital were ever taken, and indeed could not be taken because it was a military hospital and a foreign agent taking such pictures would jeopardize the relationship with the Jordanian government. The defense had requested any pictures of the hospital to determine whether the drawing, which was quite crude, in fact matched the building, but Convertino denied that any existed. The photographs eventually came to light, and led the U.S. Attorney's Office to investigate the prosecution and determine that the terror charges were unfounded.
Among the overt acts for the conspiracy charge is the allegation that Convertino "failed to comply with his duty" to disclose the photographs to defense counsel. This may be the first criminal prosecution premised in part on the failure to comply with the prosecution's Brady obligation. Similarly, the obstruction of justice charge is based on "concealing contradictory evidence from the Court, defendants and jurors," which again relies on the due process right of defendants to disclosure of material exculpatory evidence. Convertino has consistently maintained that the prosecution was proper, and that he is being prosecuted because he is a whistle-blower. He has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice and various current and former DOJ officials in Washington D.C. related to his being removed from the case and relieved of his duties as a prosecutor.
The prosecution is the end game in a case that was touted by Attorney General Ashcroft as the first significant terror prosecution after Sept. 11 and collapsed after the government, at the urging of the district court judge who presided over the trial, took a second look at the evidence and whether it fulfilled its Brady obligations. Two of the original defendants entered guilty pleas to minor charges, and it is likely that they had nothing to do with terrorist groups. This indictment may help to show how serious the government is in ensuring that trials are conducted fairly. (ph)