The feds strike out

Federal prosecutors have enormous power. Once they decide to charge someone with a crime, they can pour the virtually unlimited resources of the U.S. government into a full-court press with the authority of compulsory process – answer up or go to jail.

Defendants rarely can afford to deploy enough lawyers for a comparable response.

With such power comes a great responsibility. Yet look at the parade of fruitless, over-the-top sideshows the Justice Department has recently staged:

Barry Bonds, found guilty on one count of obstruction based on an evasive answer about drug injections, drawing a suspended sentence of 30 days after a seven-year probe.

Former presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. John Edwards is a first-class creep, make no mistake, for trying to hide his mistress and love child from a dying wife while campaigning for our highest office. But no one outside the Justice Department could figure out what that had to do with campaign finance laws. Mr. Edwards was acquitted on all counts.

And now ex-pitcher Roger Clemens, winner of an unprecedented seven Cy Young Awards, also acquitted on all counts in a second trial (the first one terminated after prosecutorial misconduct) after a five-year investigation involving 93 federal agents and officers into his alleged use of steroids.

Is this how well our federal prosecutors score when they come up against the occasional defendant with the money and the determination to stand and fight?

These cases were “a tremendous waste of federal resources,” Stanley Brand, a longtime Washington defense attorney who was counsel to the House of Representatives from 1976 to 1983, tells The Associated Press. “The juries that acquitted these people weren’t persuaded by any of this.”

This is not to make light of the crime of lying to or misleading Congress, which requires the power to effectively conduct investigations. But Mr. Clemens’ perjury trial grew out of nationally televised 2008 hearings on drug use in sports that had far more to do with scoring TV face time for politicians than sober medical research and legislation.

“Where was the adult supervision from the Justice Department to control these individual prosecutors from trying to make hay out of things that didn’t fit the big picture?” Mr. Brand asks. “They contorted federal statutes to try to convict these guys.”

The Justice Department should be deeply embarrassed. These cases misused power, wasted many millions of tax dollars and violated the public’s trust.

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