Tripp's lawyers seek trial delay

Attorneys need more time to file motions, set their schedules

May 07, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

In the wake of Friday's judicial ruling, Linda R. Tripp's defense lawyers said yesterday that they will likely seek to postpone their client's trial on state wiretapping charges until next year because they need more time to file motions.

"This case has issues all over it," said Joseph Murtha, one of Tripp's lawyers. "It's only going to get more complicated."

Those motions and his trial schedule make "it seem unrealistic that we will go to trial this year," Murtha added.

State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said he would spend the coming days reviewing evidence to salvage the prosecution -- in light of a ruling Friday by Howard Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure that eliminated crucial testimony by a key witness.

"We're going to try to put together a case," Montanarelli said. "I'm not sure whether we can do it or not."

On Friday, Leasure seriously hampered the prosecution by eliminating much of Monica Lewinsky's testimony because she was a tainted witness. But the judge will allow the former White House intern to testify that she never gave Tripp consent to tape her, a key element of Maryland's wire-tapping law.

Tripp was indicted in July on two counts of violating Maryland's wiretapping statute for recording a Dec. 22, 1997, conversation with Lewinsky and then having her attorney disclose its contents to Newsweek magazine.

The disclosure of that tape and others -- which Tripp turned over to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr -- exposed a sexual relationship between Lewinsky and President Clinton.

Leasure declined to throw out the case, as Tripp's lawyers requested, but ruled that Lewinsky was tainted by Tripp's immunized testimony to federal officials investigating President Clinton.

Because Tripp was granted federal immunity, state prosecutors were prohibited from using evidence that might have come from what Tripp told federal authorities or anything derived from what she told them.

Leasure, critical of Lewinsky's truthfulness, wrote that the former White House intern had too much access to Tripp's immunized statements to remain a fair witness. Lewinsky helped Starr investigate Clinton and reviewed Tripp's tapes and other evidence.

Lewinsky also made use of the Starr Report and other protected materials for her book, "Monica's Story."

Because Lewinsky was so thoroughly tainted, Leasure ruled that Tripp's former friend cannot testify about the Dec. 22 conversation.

That could spell trouble for prosecutors. They were relying on Lewinsky to date the tape recording. Though Montanarelli does not need to prove the taping's exact date, he must show that Tripp taped Lewinsky after she knew it was illegal to do so.

The earliest date of that knowledge, prosecutors say, was in late November 1997, a month earlier. Tripp taped more than 20 hours of conversations of Lewinsky and others on a telephone in her home from October through late December 1997.

Though Leasure declined to throw out the case, her ruling makes a relatively simple prosecution much more difficult.

How state prosecutors will fill in the gaps without Lewinsky is unknown, but legal experts said they might succeed.

"He can prove his case through a lot of circumstantial evidence," said Abraham Dash, a law professor at the University of Maryland and a critic of Montanarelli's prosecution.

Prosecutors have Radio Shack employees who can say that they sold Tripp the recording device and warned her about Maryland's law. But those employees are not considered stellar witnesses because they sold Tripp the device three years ago and saw dozens of customers every day.

Prosecutors can also present lawyers for Paula Jones, who sued Clinton for sexual misconduct, who can say that Tripp knew it was illegal to tape conversations in Maryland.

Besides discussing the illegality of the taping with Tripp as early as late November 1997, those lawyers also subpoenaed Lewinsky to testify in the Jones lawsuit Dec. 19, 1997.

On the Dec. 22 tape, Lewinsky and Tripp discuss getting the subpoena and what Lewinsky should do about it. Prosecutors could make a circumstantial case that the taping occurred after a month after Tripp knew about its illegality.

State prosecutors also might try persuading James Moody, Tripp's former lawyer, to testify about disclosing the tape's contents to Newsweek and others. He told a federal official that the Dec. 22 tape would "especially interest" Starr.

State prosecutors failed to compel Moody to testify before their grand jury after a Howard County Circuit Court judge ruled that would violate Tripp's confidentiality.

Another man was with Moody that night: a New York lawyer, who might be able to testify about the details of the recording. It is unclear whether he would be able to date the tape.

All those witnesses have passed muster with Leasure.

Should Montanarelli try to find additional witnesses, he would likely be required to appear at another hearing to determine whether they are also tainted.

If convicted, Tripp could be sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $20,000. But most lawyers and legal experts say the greatest punishment she would receive is probation.

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