We learned this week that the man that the Justice Department has sent to Boston to assist in the capital prosecution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon Bomber, was previously cited by a Federal Judge in Virginia for serious prosecutorial misconduct in a different high-profile death penalty case, which resulted in dismissal of kidnapping charges and a new murder trial for the defendant.
Steven D. Mellin, a member of the Justice Department’s Capital Case Section, which, according to its website, exists to “to promote consistency and fairness in the application of the death penalty,” has been assigned as a specialist on the Tsarnaev case, which is set to go to trial in January.
But as the Washington Post reported back in 2004 in an extensive examination of the capital prosecution of Jay Lentz, U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee ruled that Mellin improperly introduced evidence that wound up in the jury room, which, according to jury members, proved decisive in their guilt verdict.
In his 70-page ruling, Lee said Mellin was the last person to have the planners. He said Mellin had waved one of them in his closing argument. And he accused Mellin of having been “less than candid” about the matter. The judge said the material contained in those books — notes about threatening phone calls Lentz had allegedly made to his ex-wife; references to restraining orders she had sought; the phone number of a domestic violence hotline — had destroyed Lentz’s defense. At the courthouse, the tangled web and the virtually unprecedented allegation by a federal judge against an officer of the court have been followed with both fascination and disgust.
Here is the key excerpt of Lee’s ruling, courtesy of OpEdNews.
The Court concludes that Mr. Mellin’s testimony indicates much more than a lack of credibility, rather it demonstrates his intent to act outside the Orders of this Court and the confines of the law. In sum, the Court finds that Mr. Mellin’s actions with the calenders suggest his conduct was not a benign act or negligent error. Rather this action was reckless, and it was intentional.
This violation, which led to the dismissal of the kidnapping charges, and a new trial on the murder charge, had its own rather disturbing backdrop. According to the Post,
Long before he was accused of planting evidence, the prosecutor had caused concern among Lentz’s defense team because he knew the victim (he and his wife took a parenting class from Doris Lentz in 1995), had followed her disappearance in the media for several years, requested to work on the case when he came to Alexandria and flew to Indiana to participate in Lentz’s arrest in 2001.
Mellin vehemently denied he planted the evidence, and suggested Judge Lee simply didn’t like him.
But the question remains: if the Capital Case Section exists “to promote consistency and fairness in the application of the death penalty,” is this the man the Justice Department ought to be sending to assist in what may be the most emotionally charged federal capital cases of the last decade?
Prudence suggests otherwise.