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Judge rebukes prosecutors, tosses out case against deputy marshal

Left right Kristen Frost Stephen Linder Frank Lipuma

Left to right, Kristen Frost, Stephen Linder and Frank Lipuma

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Updated: April 7, 2013 6:29AM

A U.S. deputy marshal accused of twice assaulting handcuffed detainees, then coercing his fellow officers into a cover-up, has had the charges thrown out by a federal judge who sharply criticized prosecutors for bullying witnesses.

In a scathing and highly unusual ruling, Judge Virginia Kendall on Tuesday tossed out the case against Deputy Stephen Linder.

Linder’s constitutional rights to a fair trial were violated by the Marshal Service and by attorneys in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division when they threatened to fire or prosecute Linder’s fellow deputies if they spoke to Linder or his lawyers, or gave evidence that helped clear him, the judge ruled.

In her 109-page ruling, Kendall — a former assistant U.S. Attorney who was until late last year among the candidates to replace Patrick Fitzgerald as Chicago’s top federal prosecutor — damned what she called an “overly aggressive prosecution marked by a federal agent who threatened witnesses.”

Prosecutors “joined in by threatening witnesses who would not provide them with the statements they wanted to hear,” the judge added.

Linder, a 37-year-old father of two, was due to stand trial on Monday and has been suspended without pay since his indictment in January 2012. He was “delighted” by the ruling and is desperate to get back to work chasing down “gang leaders, drug dealers and the worst of the worst,” his attorney Frank Lipuma said.

Evidence showed that another deputy, Harry Sims, accused Linder of assaulting the father of a murder suspect, Santiago Solis, during an interrogation in Cicero in June 2010. Within days, Sims allegedly recanted his accusation, telling a third deputy, Lorne Stenson, that he’d filed an inaccurate report against Linder because “I was scared that if I didn’t file it immediately that I would be accused, myself, of some wrongdoing.”

But Stenson and several other deputies said they were too scared to come forward in Linder’s defense of that allegation or a similar alleged assault in 2008 because emails from Chicago’s top U.S. marshal, Darryl McPherson, and his assistant chief, Tim McFarland, warned they faced sanctions if they spoke to Linder or his attorneys.

Kendall ruled that McPherson and McFarland were acting in “good faith,” but that their emails effectively gagged deputies who “accept a low salary to do some of the most dangerous law enforcement tasks expected of federal law enforcement officers.”

She singled out for criticism prosecutor AeJean Cha and Kevin Shirley, an investigator in the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, who she wrote acted like an “untrained investigator who developed an unfounded belief that each witness that did not want to volunteer evidence for him must be a criminal who was worthy of federal prosecution.”

Justice Department and U.S. Marshal Service spokesmen said they needed to study the ruling before commenting.

But Linder’s attorney said it ends what have “been a very difficult couple of years for Steve.”

“This was a heavy-handed and out-of-control investigation. Steve just wants the U.S. Marshal Service to give him his job back so that he can go back to catching fugitives — he’s caught hundreds upon hundreds of them,” Lipuma said.

Linder, who was also represented by attorney Kristen Frost, had been looking forward to clearing his name at trial, Lipuma said. But he added: “We’ll take this!”

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