Craig Hearing Set for Sept. 26 Before Judge Accused of Bias
Larry Craig will have his day in court - Sept. 26 -- and it has been scheduled quickly enough that he might meet his self-imposed deadline for resolving his criminal fight so he can return to the Senate and complete his term. And just to add to the drama of this political scandal, the hearing has been slated before a judge who last week was accused of bias toward a murder suspect by the top Twin Cities prosecutor.
Craig was arrested June 11 in a Minneapolis airport as part of an undercover gay-sex sting operation. The police report said that Craig eyed the undercover police officer through the crack in a bathroom stall door, then sat in an adjacent stall and tapped his foot "as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct." On Aug. 8, he pleaded guilty to the disorderly-conduct charge and paid a $500 fine.
Yesterday, Craig's legal team filed papers formally requested to withdraw Craig's disorderly conduct guilty plea, arguing that the senator was unduly influenced by the undercover officer's promise of privacy should he just plead guilty. In addition, his lawyers argued that his actions added up to nothing illegal, although police say those are signals often used by men looking for anonymous sexual encounters in public restrooms.
This afternoon, Hennepin County District Court announced that Judge Charles Porter will hear Craig's request to withdraw his guilty plea. The hearing is set for 1:30 pm CDT, Sept. 26.
Prosecutors for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which oversee the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport police, vowed to "strenuously" fight Craig's motion, contending that the police used "standard investigative procedures" in the arrest and interview, according to spokesman Patrick Hogan.
What's stunning about the court hearing is the timing, a turnaround of barely two weeks from his initial request for an oral argument. If a ruling in Craig's favor were to come down by the end of that week or into the weekend, the senator would at least partially have met the goal he set out for his return to the Senate. Craig has said that if by Sept. 30 he can resolve his legal situation satisfactorily, he would return to the Senate and serve out the remainder of his third term through 2008. He would not seek re-election, aides have said.
Craig's return would be much to the dismay of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the GOP leader, and other Republicans who would prefer Craig never set foot in the Capitol again.
In statements from his aides, Craig has indicated that if he is "cleared" of the guilty plea he would return to the Senate and then deal with the Ethics Committee investigation into his airport incident, a probe that was prompted by a request from McConnell and the GOP leadership.
But Craig's aides have pointedly declined to address what Minnesota legal experts say is the best-case scenario for the senator - that a judge could toss out his guilty plea and then set a trial date for later this year or early next year. Under this scenario he could return to the Senate next month and fight both the criminal case in Minnesota and the Ethics Committee investigation.
Andrew S. Birrell, a criminal defense lawyer Capitol Briefing spoke with yesterday, said that overturning guilty pleas is very difficult but that he believes a ruling on the matter could come by the end of the month. After that, Birrell said, Craig would then plead not guilty and likely request a "speedy trial", which under Minnesota rules would require a trial to begin within 60 days of the new Craig plea.
Porter, the judge on the case, was in the news last week when Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman - considered the state's most prominent prosecutor and a perennial statewide Democratic candidate - accused Porter of bias in favor of murder trial suspect. Freeman asked the state Supreme Court to remove Porter from the retrial of the accused murderer of an 11-year-old girl, telling the justices there was "nothing fair or appearing to be fair" in how Porter handled the first trial.
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