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Mistrial in Julie Hiatt Steele Case

May 8, 1999

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) _ First Susan McDougal. Now Julie Hiatt Steele. Prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s investigation of the president and first lady is stuck in a new gear: jury deadlock.

U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton’s decision to declare a mistrial Friday in Ms. Steele’s trial casts new doubt on the testimony of presidential accuser Kathleen Willey, Starr’s main witness against her one-time friend Ms. Steele.

Instead of convictions that might put a successful end to his investigation, Starr faces critical decisions about whether to attack or retreat.

``It would be nice to get a decision″ from a jury so that prosecutors can ``move on to other areas″ of the investigation, said Starr deputy Jay Apperson.

``I think it’s time to celebrate,″ Ms. Steele said outside the federal courthouse. ``It’s time to start my life again.″

Her comments may be premature.

Starr could seek to retry her. He has a similar decision to make regarding Mrs. McDougal, whose trial ended in deadlock less than a month ago in Little Rock, Ark.

Ms. Steele undercut Mrs. Willey’s story of an unwanted sexual advance by Clinton. Mrs. McDougal refused to give grand jury testimony about her former Whitewater partners, the Clintons.

Both were charged with obstruction of Starr’s probe.

In a three-day trial, Ms. Steele’s attorneys assailed Mrs. Willey’s credibility, depicting her as a publicity-seeking woman who has repeatedly lied.

Ms. Steele planned to testify in her defense until Wednesday night, when her lawyers told her they felt the cross-examination of Mrs. Willey’s credibility had been so effective that the wisest strategy would be to call no witnesses.

According to people familiar with Ms. Steele’s situation, she resisted the idea of not testifying. They said the Steele team finally made the decision Thursday morning not to put on defense witnesses.

Among other reasons that Ms. Steele wanted to testify was to counter Mrs. Willey’s suggestions that Ms. Steele was eager to go to the tabloid press with the story of the Clinton-Willey incident.

If convicted of all charges, Ms. Steele could have faced up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

Mrs. Willey testified that she rebuffed a ``very forceful″ sexual advance by Clinton and told Ms. Steele about the incident hours after it occurred.

Ms. Steele said the first time she ever heard of a Clinton-Willey encounter was in March 1997, when Mrs. Willey called her and asked her to lie about it to a Newsweek reporter.

Prosecutors produced three witnesses who said Ms. Steele informed them she had known of the alleged Clinton advance before 1997. Each of the three witnesses testified Ms. Steele insisted to them later that she hadn’t told them.

Defense attorneys questioned why Mrs. Willey now remembers the alleged encounter with Clinton and conversations with Ms. Steele in much more detail than she did the first time she told the story under oath, during a January 1998 deposition for the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.

Trying to depict Mrs. Willey as emotionally unbalanced, Ms. Steele’s lawyers made Mrs. Willey recount a grocery store confrontation in which she called Ms. Steele a four-letter word. Mrs. Willey said she regretted the confrontation but accused Ms. Steele of attacking her in TV interviews and public appearances over the past year.

Ms. Steele’s lawyers also delved into Ms. Willey’s taking of various antidepressants, including Prozac. Mrs. Willey said she had been depressed for some time after her husband’s suicide, which occurred the day of the alleged Clinton advance.

And Mrs. Willey admitted she lied to Starr’s investigators when they asked about a past relationship in which she had pretended to be pregnant.

Rather than abandoning their witness, Starr’s office gave her a second grant of immunity from prosecution as a result of that lie.

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