Mistrial of the century in bizarre Steele case

Starr's mistake: Vindictive prosecutor, desperate to get Clinton, cut himself off at the knees.

May 08, 1999

JULIE Hiatt Steele wandered into the melodramatic scheming to impeach the president, never sure what she was doing there . She is a victim of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's determination to do whatever it took to remove Mr. Clinton from office.

The mistrial declared in her case is the mistrial of the century. The hung jury reflects the testimony, which showed that a lot of people lied a lot of the time. One of them may have been Ms. Steele, when she said that Kathleen Willey had not told her before 1997 about being groped by President Clinton in 1993.

But Ms. Willey was a worse witness than Ms. Steele. Ms. Willey was shown to have lied 63 times in her testimony in the Paula Jones lawsuit. So, why did Mr. Starr indict Ms. Steele for obstruction of justice and making false statements but not Ms. Willey? Because Ms. Willey was willing to testify against Mr. Clinton, and Ms. Steele had undermined Ms. Willey's credibility. In other words, the prosecution of Ms. Steele was capricious and vengeful.

Sometimes a jury engages in what lawyers and judges disapprovingly call "nullification." An example is when jurors decide that despite the evidence, they will acquit because the prosecution was trivial, disproportional or otherwise wrongly brought.

One bizarre aspect of Mr. Starr's investigation of the president's sex life is that of all the characters who blundered into it, the only one indicted was Julie Hiatt Steele. This certainly gave rise to the appearance that Mr. Starr was extorting perjury, making people afraid not to say what he wished.

The trial also allowed the prosecution to put Ms. Willey on the stand to give her version of her encounter with President Clinton. The nation, so soon after Mr. Clinton's impeachment trial, either did not notice or did not care.

There is a rule in the threat business that you should never make one unless prepared to carry it out. Someone in the Office of Independent Counsel seems to subscribe to this wisdom.

They don't let juries hang the prosecutor. So this jury hung itself.

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