As legal developments go, this one was a stunner, a moment worthy of "Perry Mason" -- you know, where the legendary TV lawyer would deftly get a witness on the stand to confess to the crime, vindicating the defendant.
After just 26 minutes of oral arguments, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction of Georgia Thompson, the former state Department of Administration official, on charges of fraud. Thompson, who steadfastly maintained her innocence, had been prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Steve Biskupic in a case seized on by his fellow Republicans to taint Gov. Jim Doyle. She had served four months of an 18-month sentence when the appeals court set her free.
That's right. It set her free. On the spot. No weeks of deliberation. No order that she merely be granted a new trial. The court deemed the evidence against Thompson so lacking -- "beyond thin," one member of the three-judge panel put it -- that it overturned her conviction and ordered her release.
The case against Thompson always seemed weak to the point of being suspicious. She was accused of steering a state contract toward a Doyle contributor. But there was no evidence she was pressured to do so, nor any suggestion that she benefitted personally from this act. And if she did in fact show favoritism toward the winning bidder, it may have been because it was a Wisconsin firm.
After the verdict, two jurors proclaimed their belief that higher-ranking state officials were involved -- an assertion for which there was never a shred of evidence.
These people were just aching for a chance to take a stand against corruption of the sort politicians are forever alleging that their opponents engage in. When Biskupic gave them that chance, they leapt at it.
As a result, Thompson's attorney, Steve Hurley, said in a statement, she lost her job, her life savings, her home, her liberty and her good name. At her sentencing, the government argued that Thompson deserved a stricter sentence because she did not accept responsibility.
"Today," said Hurley, "the government ought to accept responsibility for the consequences of its acts."
Good idea. There does indeed need to be a reckoning. At least two areas merit further review.
The first area is whether the charges against Thompson should have ever been filed. Obviously, the appeals court judges -- two of three of whom were appointed by Republican presidents -- felt the evidence did not support it.
Biskupic has been asked whether he intends to appeal. The more urgent question is whether the decision to prosecute Thompson was political from the start. This was always a valid question, given the zeal which Doyal rival Mark Green and his Republican allies sought to turn the case to their advantage.
But now this question has fresh impetus, given what we now know about the Bush administration's politicalization of U.S. attorneys. At least one of Biskupic's counterparts was pressured to engage in partisan prosecutions on timelines that suited electoral contests -- and fired when he declined. The integrity of Biskupic's prosecution ought to be called into serious question.
The second area that merits review concerns Gov. Doyle's shockingly self-serving and hypocritical comments in the wake of the appeals court's ruling. He angrily lashed out at the media for sensationalizing the case. He called Thompson's conviction "a terrible injustice," proclaiming her "an innocent woman who was imprisoned for more than four months just for doing her job." He said she had been used as "a political football."
Does Doyle really expect people to forget that, when it mattered, he was more than willing to throw Thompson to the wolves, rather than expend an ounce of political capital on her behalf? Indeed, he did everything in his power to distance himself from her.
"It is clear that Georgia Thompson acted on her own, and that no other state employee was involved," Doyle said following her conviction. "As I have stated before, I have zero tolerance for ethical lapses in government. When public servants abuse the public's trust, they forfeit their rights to continue in the state's employ."
That was Doyle when it mattered. He was completely comfortable letting a person he now deems obviously innocent go down in flames rather than lift a finger to help her.
Rest assured, if Doyle had said, back when it mattered, that he believed Thompson was being wrongfully prosecuted and had broken no laws, reporters would have found time in their busy schedules to report his views.
Doyle's effort to score political points from the court's ruling is nothing more than the latest attempt to use Georgia Thompson as a political football. And it's no less unseemly when the governor himself is doing the kicking.