Judge sets May 5 ruling on evidence in Tripp case

Defense team seeks dismissal of charges

March 30, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A Howard County Circuit Court judge said yesterday that she will rule by May 5 on what evidence, if any, state prosecutors can use in their illegal-wiretapping case against Linda R. Tripp.

That announcement was made after a two-hour hearing in which Tripp's lawyers attacked key witness Monica Lewinsky's credibility, calling her a "liar," and asked Judge Diane O. Leasure to throw out the case against their client.

State prosecutors defended their investigation, saying a small portion of the evidence was tainted by Tripp's immunized testimony to federal authorities investigating President Clinton in 1998. They are asking Leasure to allow them to proceed to trial.

For the most part, yesterday's arguments rehashed ones filed with Leasure, who said she would post her ruling on the Internet by 2 p.m. May 5.

Though yesterday's hearing did not generate the media interest of past proceedings, it did lure Tripp's daughter Allison to the courtroom. Standing before television cameras and reporters outside the courthouse afterward, the 20-year-old said: "I'm just here for support. I think [the arguments] went really well."

Tripp was indicted in July on two counts of violating Maryland's wiretapping law. She is accused of tape recording a Dec. 22, 1997, telephone conversation with Lewinsky and then having her attorney disclose the contents of that recording to Newsweek magazine. That tape recording and others made from Tripp's home in Columbia revealed a sexual relationship between President Clinton and Lewinsky, a former White House intern.

The tapes spurred an investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and led to Clinton's impeachment in December 1998.

Evidence gathering

The main issue in Tripp's prosecution involves how state prosecutors gathered evidence and whether their witnesses were "tainted" by their knowledge of Tripp's immunized testimony to Starr's investigators and before a federal grand jury. The case has generated more than a week of hearings on the immunity issue.

During yesterday's proceeding, Leasure directed most of her questions toward Deputy Attorney General Carmen Shepard, who argued the case on behalf of state prosecutors.

Leasure noted that Lewinsky's book, "Monica's Story," did not mention the Newsweek story that included a transcript of the tape-recorded Dec. 22 conversation.

Whether Lewinsky could recall the specific date of the conversation is a major issue in the case. Tripp's lawyers contend that she refreshed her memory based on information Tripp gave to federal investigators, testimony that Lewinsky was able to review. That review and recollection, they argue, "infect" the prosecution.

Tripp's lawyers contend that Lewinsky lied under oath in a December hearing when she recalled a specific date of the recording to seek revenge against their client.

State prosecutors said that one of Tripp's lawyers told Starr's deputies about the date of the recording long before Tripp was given official immunity. They also contend that they might not need to prove the specific date to win a prosecution because of wording in the indictment.

Lewinsky says that she can recall the specific date because of other events taking place at the time, including her goodbye party from the Pentagon and a subpoena issued to her in the Paula Jones' sexual misconduct case against Clinton.

She testified in December before Leasure that the date "was etched in my mind. It was a pretty frightening time for me."

Leasure also said it was "somewhat troubling" that no recorded admonishments were issued to Howard County grand jurors about reading accounts about Starr's report to Congress, which included immunized testimony Tripp gave to federal investigators.

"To say there was a mild level of media activity would be an understatement," Leasure said. "This case is somewhat unique in terms of coverage."

Grand jury warnings

Tripp's lawyers have consistently criticized state prosecutors for not taking more precautions to warn grand jurors to avoid news accounts of Starr's report, especially when it was released in September 1998. The grand jury did not meet for several months during that period.

Shepard said that state prosecutors told grand jurors to consider information presented to them in the courtroom and to ignore outside news as they weighed whether to indict Tripp. She said evidence clearly shows grand jurors did that.

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