Judge rules against Lewinsky testimony

`Impermissible taint' noted by Leasure in wiretapping case

May 06, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

In what state prosecutors described as a major blow, a Howard County circuit judge ruled yesterday that they could not use crucial testimony from Monica Lewinsky, a key witness in their wire-tapping case against Linda R. Tripp.

In a decision critical of prosecutors and Lewinsky, Judge Diane O. Leasure agreed with defense lawyers that the former White House intern is "bathed in impermissible taint" and will not allow Lewinsky to testify about the illicitly taped conversation. But Leasure said she will allow Lewinsky to testify about whether she gave Tripp consent to tape her.

Though the question of Lewinsky's consent is a key element needed to secure a conviction under the Maryland wire-tapping statute, State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli did not seem optimistic at the ruling.

"We are proceeding as of this date," Montanarelli said. "We know we have a difficult problem to overcome. If we can't overcome it, we'll make a decision and do what we have to do."

Tripp's defense team claimed victory after the ruling was released yesterday at 2 p.m. and asked Montanarelli to drop the charges.

"We're encouraged by the ruling," said Joseph Murtha, one of Tripp's lawyers. "This hobbles the state's case."

In her 40-page decision, Leasure said that prosecutors can still proceed to trial but will have to find other evidence that Tripp and Lewinsky had the conversation that the Columbia resident taped on Dec. 22, 1997. Lewinsky testified at a December hearing that the conversation was "etched in her mind."

Losing Lewinsky's testimony could prove troublesome to prosecutors. Said Montanarelli: "We're going to have to review all the evidence now. We have to [replace] Lewinsky. That's my problem. That's a big problem."

Montanarelli also said that he would have difficulty proving it was even Lewinsky's voice on the tape without her testimony. He could also have trouble proving the exact date Tripp taped Lewinsky, but legal experts said that was a minor issue that should not endanger winning a conviction at trial.

Tripp was indicted in July on two counts of violating Maryland's wiretapping statute for tape recording the Dec. 22, 1997, conversation with Lewinsky and then having her attorney disclose its contents to Newsweek magazine. The disclosure of that tape and others revealed a sexual relationship between Lewinsky and President Clinton and led to his eventual impeachment in December 1998.

It is illegal in Maryland to tape record someone without consent. If convicted on both counts, Tripp could be sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $20,000. Tripp is the only major figure from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to be indicted on criminal charges.

Tripp was granted federal immunity in exchange for testimony about Lewinsky's relationship with Clinton. And state prosecutors were prohibited from using any information Tripp told those federal authorities under her immunity deal or any information derived from what she told them.

Credibility in doubt

In a series of hearings, state prosecutors tried to prove that their evidence came from independent sources. They succeeded in proving that point to Leasure on most of their evidence, but the judge ruled that Lewinsky and another witness were tainted. She also criticized Lewinsky's credibility as a witness and ability to recall the date of the tape recording.

In a December hearing, Lewinsky said she knew precisely when Tripp taped the conversation that later appeared in a February 1998 Newsweek story. But Leasure said that the facts "do not support her assertion."

The judge wrote that Lewinsky never mentioned the Newsweek story in her book, "which is extremely detailed in its discussions of major events in her life."

Lewinsky also never mentioned the Dec. 22, 1997, taping during extensive interviews with the FBI, Leasure said, and needed to listen to the tape again in Starr's office to recall a portion of that conversation.

"The Court finds Ms. Lewinsky to be so tainted by her exposure to Ms. Tripp's immunized testimony that any independent knowledge of the events she may have cannot overcome" the state's burden, Leasure wrote.

The judge also took issue with the former White House intern's truthfulness: "The fact that Ms. Lewinsky admitted that she lied under oath in a federal proceeding and has stated that lying has been a part of her life does not enhance her credibility as a witness."

Plato Cacheris, Lewinsky's lawyer, defended his client yesterday, saying that she was truthful. "She has always been found to be credible by the independent counsel's office," Cacheris said. "We would rest on that."

Another witness tainted

Leasure also ruled that another witness was tainted. Kate Friedrich, one of Tripp's friends, testified that Tripp told her that she was taping Lewinsky.

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