Ruling awaited on Tripp evidence

Howard judge to decide whether immunity taints case

May 05, 2000|By DEL QUENTIN WILBER | DEL QUENTIN WILBER,SUN STAFF

After filing hundreds of pages of legal briefs and arguing at several hearings, lawyers on both sides of the state wiretapping case against Linda R. Tripp say they are eagerly awaiting a key ruling today that could decide the prosecution's fate.

Yet, neither side is handicapping whether Howard County Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure will grant a defense request to throw out the criminal charges.

"We made our arguments and the judge is going to rule," said Assistant State Prosecutor Thomas M. McDonough. "I'm sure she'll rule the way she sees it."

Said Joseph Murtha, one of Tripp's lawyers: "I have no idea what Judge Leasure is thinking."

The suspense of the latest decision is expected to end by 2 p.m. today when Leasure posts her ruling on the Internet (www.courts.state.md.- us/howard/index.html).

Tripp's lawyers contend that state prosecutors improperly used their client's federally immunized testimony during a yearlong investigation of the Columbia resident. Leasure can throw out the indictment or cut out tainted evidence and allow the case to proceed to trial.

If Leasure allows the case to go forward mostly intact, defense lawyers are expected to file more motions and possibly seek a postponement of the case, scheduled for a July trial. It's unclear what state prosecutors will do if Leasure throws out the charges or carves away a significant chunk of evidence.

Defense lawyers are asking Leasure to toss out Tripp's indictment on two counts of violating Maryland's wiretapping statute.

Tripp is accused of tape-recording a single conversation with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and then having her attorney disclose the tape's contents to Newsweek magazine.

That disclosure and others exposed a sexual relationship between Lewinsky and President Clinton. Those disclosures led to Clinton's impeachment in December 1998.

It is against Maryland law to tape-record conversations of other people without their consent. If convicted on both counts, Tripp could face 10 years in prison or a $20,000 fine. She is the only major figure of the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal to be indicted on criminal charges.

Tripp supplied volumes of evidence to Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr and turned over more than 20 hours of tape recordings she made on a telephone at her Columbia home between October and December 1997.

Tripp gave her tapes to Starr in January 1998, was eventually granted court-ordered immunity and testified eight times before a federal grand jury. She was questioned repeatedly by Starr's aides.

Testimony and information that witnesses give to authorities under court-ordered immunity are protected from other prosecutors. That means state prosecutors cannot use any information that Tripp told federal authorities or information derived from what Tripp told them under her grant of immunity, legal experts say.

State prosecutors say they took precautions and worked hard to find independent witnesses but concede that one witness was tainted by Tripp's immunity deal.

State prosecutors learned about that witness, Kate Friedrich, through a circuitous route that began when Tripp told federal investigators about Friedrich's existence.

Friedrich, a friend of Tripp's, eventually told Howard County grand jurors that Tripp was taping conversations with a woman who was having a sexual relationship with Clinton, state prosecutors say. Later that day, grand jurors indicted Tripp, a Pentagon employee.

Defense lawyers say that Friedrich's grand jury testimony taints the indictment, but state prosecutors argue that she provided only "cumulative" information and the grand jury would have indicted Tripp anyway without Friedrich's testimony.

Defense lawyers also argue that Lewinsky is tainted because she reviewed evidence that Tripp gave to Starr's office. Tripp's lawyers also assert that Lewinsky lied under oath during a December motions hearing in Ellicott City and has given conflicting statements to state prosecutors.

In a letter from her attorney to prosecutors in August 1998, Lewinsky did not provide specific information about the Dec. 22, 1997, tape recording, which was transcribed in a Newsweek story two months later.

On the witness stand during a December hearing in the Ellicott City courthouse, Lewinsky said she could pinpoint the date of that transcript in the magazine. She said she could 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 Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case against Clinton.

During the hearing, Lewinsky said the date "was etched in my mind."

"It was a pretty frightening time for me," she said.

If Leasure rules that Lewinsky is tainted and prohibits her use as a witness, state prosecutors would lose a significant part of evidence and might be forced to drop the case.

Under Maryland law, prosecutors need to prove that Lewinsky did not give Tripp permission to tape her.

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