Tripp lawyers seeking postponement of trial

Attorneys say they need until next year to file motions, set 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, after a ruling Friday by Howard Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure that eliminated crucial testimony by a key witness.

On Friday, Leasure hampered the prosecution by eliminating much of Monica Lewinsky's testimony, ruling that 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 wiretapping law.

Tripp was indicted in July on two counts of violating Maryland's 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 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 Starr's 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.

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

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