Ex-Prosecutor Acquitted of Misconduct in 9/11 Case
The New York TImes by PHILIP SHENON
DETROIT, Oct. 31, 2007 — A former federal prosecutor was found not guilty on Wednesday of charges that he illegally withheld evidence from defense lawyers in the first major terrorism case that the Justice Department brought after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The acquittal of the former prosecutor, Richard G. Convertino, and his co-defendant, Harry R. Smith III, amounted to a double embarrassment for the department.
The department, which has acknowledged that the 2001 case was bungled, will now face accusations that it also bungled a case it brought last year against Mr. Convertino and Mr. Smith.
In 2004, the convictions of two North Africans on terrorism charges in the original case were overturned amid the accusations of misconduct by Mr. Convertino, 46, who had been a federal prosecutor here, and Mr. Smith, 51, a former State Department security officer.
After his acquittal on Wednesday, Mr. Convertino told reporters in the federal district courthouse here that the charges of obstruction of justice were “a politically motivated prosecution that never should have been brought.”
“Somebody must be held accountable for this,” he said.
Mr. Convertino had earlier said he was being persecuted by former supervisors in Washington because he had been critical of the Justice Department’s management of terrorism prosecutions after Sept. 11.
The case against Mr. Convertino and Mr. Smith was prosecuted by trial lawyers from the Justice Department’s public integrity section in Washington.
A spokesman for the department, Bryan Sierra, issued a brief statement saying, “We believe in the case and its importance to the system, and we respect the jury’s verdict.”
The outcome is likely to bring new scrutiny to the department and its record in prosecuting terrorism-related cases and in dealing with the conduct of employees involved in them.
The department has a mixed record on terrorism prosecutions since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Last week in Dallas, it failed to obtain a single conviction in a terrorism-financing prosecution of what was once the nation’s largest Islamic charity, a case that will probably be retried.
The jury in the trial here deliberated less than a day before issuing its verdict. With the acquittals, the jurors rejected the accusations by Mr. Convertino’s former bosses at the Justice Department that he had intentionally and illegally withheld photographs from defense lawyers in the 2001 case that might have helped exonerate their clients.
The photographs were of a military hospital in Amman, Jordan, that was said to be a target of a so-called sleeper cell of terrorists that included the North Africans.
Evidence at Mr. Convertino’s trial this month suggested that Mr. Smith, who had worked in the United States Embassy in Amman, had taken photographs of the hospital and that Mr. Convertino had been aware of those photos and others, and yet still told defense lawyers that no photos were available.
When the existence of photos of the hospital became known after the 2003 trial, defense lawyers said they would have been valuable to the defense and should have been turned over to them under federal rules that require prosecutors to disclose all evidence that might suggest that a defendant is innocent.
The defense lawyers said the photos did not resemble a sketch found in a notebook seized from a dilapidated Detroit apartment where some of the North African men had lived. Mr. Convertino said in the 2003 trial of the four North African men that the sketch was of the Amman hospital.
Neither Mr. Convertino nor Mr. Smith testified for the defense this month. At the North Africans’ original trial in 2003, Mr. Smith testified for the prosecution and suggested that there were no photographs of the hospital and that the Jordanian government barred any from being taken. Those statements were later shown to be inaccurate.
The original prosecution exposed deep rifts in the Justice Department over strategy. Some department lawyers in Washington barely spoke with Mr. Convertino and his colleagues here.
Still, Attorney General John Ashcroft and other senior department officials in Washington depicted the arrests of the North African men days after the Sept. 11 attacks as proof that the administration was moving aggressively to round up terrorists who might be operating in the United States.
Mr. Ashcroft was rebuked by the judge hearing the case for publicly asserting — in error — that the North Africans were suspected of having advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot.
Correction: November 2, 2007
An article yesterday about the acquittal of a former federal prosecutor on charges that he illegally withheld evidence from defense lawyers in a major terrorism case misstated his given name. He is Richard G. Convertino, not Robert. A picture caption misspelled the surname of another lawyer and misstated his role in the case. He is Thomas Cranmer, not Crammer, and he represented Mr. Convertino’s co-defendant, Harry R. Smith III, who was also acquitted; Mr. Cranmer was not the lawyer for Mr. Convertino.