State prosecutors dropped their wiretapping case yesterday against Linda R. Tripp, the Columbia resident whose illicit recording of Monica Lewinsky exposed a sex scandal at the White House and led to the president's impeachment.
The decision came after a pretrial ruling essentially eliminated the state's main witness, Lewinsky, whose testimony state prosecutors needed to prove that Tripp broke the law.
Outside the Howard County Courthouse yesterday evening, Tripp's lead defense attorney, Joseph Murtha, declared victory and said his client was "relieved" that the criminal case was finished.
In a statement, Tripp said: "The full story has not been told, but I continue to believe I did the right thing given the extraordinary circumstances in which I found myself."
"My family and I are enormously gratified that the federal immunity I was given has finally provided the protection it promised."
The end comes more than two years after state prosecutors began investigating Tripp's secret taping, which revealed a sexual relationship between President Clinton and Lewinsky, a former White House intern.
Tripp is the only major figure from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to be charged with a crime.
Lewinsky could not be reached for comment yesterday. Her attorney, Plato Cacheris, said he was not surprised the case was over.
"I don't think [State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli] had much choice, given the rulings that the judge made," Cacheris said.
"I think he did what he had to do."
Cacheris said he wasn't disappointed that the case was over and was sure Lewinsky didn't mind either.
"I don't think she looked forward to coming to Howard County to testify," he said. "That doesn't mean she doesn't feel betrayed by Linda Tripp."She will always have that feeling."
Tripp, 50, was indicted in July on two counts of violating Maryland's wiretapping law for illegally tape-recording a conversation with Lewinsky Dec. 22, 1997, and having her attorney disclose its contents to Newsweek magazine.
State prosecutors should have had a fairly easy time earning a conviction, but they ran into an obstacle that they could not overcome: Tripp's federal immunity.
On May 5, after six days of hearings spread over five months that examined whether state prosecutors gathered their evidence independently from that immunity agreement, Howard County Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure effectively ended the case.
In her decision, Leasure ruled that Lewinsky was tainted by Tripp's immunized testimony to federal authorities and, therefore, could not identify the Dec. 22, 1997, conversation.
State prosecutors were forbidden to use witnesses who were exposed to information that Tripp gave to Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr under her immunity deal.
After the ruling, Montanarelli conceded the case was in trouble but made a last-ditch effort, asking Leasure to "clarify" her decision.
Leasure denied that request Monday.
Montanarelli needed Lewinsky to authenticate a partial transcript of the recording that appeared in Newsweek. He also was relying on Lewinsky to date the recording to prove that Tripp knew it was illegal to make the secret recording but continued to do so.
State prosecutors had witnesses who could establish that Tripp knew it was illegal to record others in Maryland without their consent as early as November 1997.
State prosecutors had no other witnesses to the recording. Once they lost Lewinsky, prosecutors could not prove the conversation even occurred.
"If Lewinsky can't testify that the conversation took place, that is fatal to the case," Montanarelli said.
Though disappointed about dropping the charges, Montanarelli said it was the ethical thing to do.
"This was a loss," he said. "We worked very hard on this case. We've taken it as far as we could go."
Most legal experts questioned why Montanarelli brought a case that involved a federally immunized witness, complex legal issues and so little payoff at the end: At most, Tripp would have received probation if convicted.
But the legal experts agreed with Montanarelli that the judge's ruling spelled the end of his prosecution and gave him a graceful way to get out of the morass.
"This was a good way for him to say, 'I did my duty,' and blame it on the court," said Abraham Dash, a law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and critic of the investigation.
Tripp's confidant, Lucianne Goldberg, who told Tripp in September 1997 that there was no problem taping in Maryland, said yesterday that she was "ecstatic."
"Her nightmare is over," Goldberg said. "This was just vicious and political and small."
Even if the New York literary agent had given Tripp correct legal advice not to make the recording, Goldberg said, "I think she was so scared at the time that she probably wouldn't have listened to me."
At Tripp's home on Cricket Pass in the Village of Hickory Ridge, her two-story house was quiet during the afternoon and early evening. A dog barked from the inside, but otherwise there was no sign of life.
Most neighbors, long ago weary of media queries, refused to talk to the news reporters.
Linda Rossiter, who lives across the street from Tripp, said she heard that the case had been thrown out on the radio when she went to pick up her son from school.
"I was happy for her," said Rossiter, who used to garden with Tripp.
"I think this has really gone on long enough. ... I think she has paid a price for what she did, and let's just let it go."
Bringing the case was not easy. Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon, a Republican, handed off the investigation to Montanarelli in February 1998, saying politics would cloud any decision to prosecute.
Montanarelli testified in December at hearings that he knew it would be difficult to investigate the case because McLendon had told him there was an immunity deal.
That would severely limit the information he could gather and force him to find evidence independent from anything Tripp might have given federal investigators.
After the referral from McLendon, state prosecutors gathered news accounts that led them to the Radio Shack, where Tripp bought the taping device, and to members of her bridge club who testified before the Howard County grand jury that they were aware Tripp was taping phone calls.
"I thought it was my duty to pursue it," said Montanarelli of the Tripp investigation. "We're grown-up people. We've been through this before.
"When you are a prosecutor, when the court rules against you, you have no recourse but to drop the charges as soon as possible."
Montanarelli's office estimated that the case cost about $10,000, excluding salaries.
Montanarelli said he will ask officials at the Howard County Circuit Court for a date to appear to officially drop the case. No date has been set, court officials said yesterday afternoon.
Despite yesterday's victory, Tripp's legal battles aren't over.
Tripp, who earns nearly $100,000 a year as a Defense Department employee, is still pursuing a lawsuit against the Clinton administration and Pentagon officials, who she alleges violated her privacy.
She maintains that Montanarelli's prosecution was politically motivated, Murtha said, citing a letter sent by 49 Democratic state lawmakers to McLendon in early 1998 asking her to prosecute Tripp.
Asked whether Tripp would speak publicly, Murtha was circumspect: "There will come a time when Linda Tripp will speak out."
Staff writers Erika Niedowski and Alice Lukens contributed to this article.
The Tripp chronology
In July, Monica Lewinsky goes to work as a White House intern and later becomes a paid staff member. By Nov. 15, a sexual relationship begins between President Clinton and Lewinsky.
April 5: The White House transfers Lewinsky to the Pentagon, where she meets Linda R. Tripp. In the fall, Lewinsky tells Tripp about her relationship with Clinton.
May 24: Lewinsky's sexual relationship with Clinton ends.
Sept. 18: Tripp and New York literary agent Lucianne Goldberg discuss Tripp's proposal to write a book about White House sex scandals.
Sept. 29: Goldberg tells Tripp "there's no problem" with secretly taping telephone calls in Maryland.
Oct. 3: Tripp buys a voice-activated phone recorder at Radio Shack in the Mall in Columbia and begins secretly taping her conversations with Lewinsky.
Nov. 24: Tripp learns from her attorney, Kirby D. Behre, that secretly taping in Maryland is illegal. She tapes Lewinsky several more times, saying it is "to protect myself."
Jan. 12: Tripp hands over tapes to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
Jan. 13: FBI agents working for Starr fit Tripp with a hidden microphone and record her meeting with Lewinsky.
Jan. 16: Starr gets permission from federal appeals court to widen the Whitewater investigation to include Clinton's sexual affairs.
Jan. 21: Word of the Lewinsky affair is published for the first time.
Feb. 11: Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon, a Republican, says she will hand over the Tripp case to State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli.
Aug. 6: A Howard County grand jury begins hearing evidence against Tripp.
Oct. 8: House votes to hold impeachment inquiry.
Nov. 12: Goldberg and her son, Jonah, testify before the Howard grand jury. Goldberg says she urged Tripp to begin taping after doubts were cast about Tripp's credibility.
Dec. 19: House impeaches Clinton.
Feb. 12: Senate acquits Clinton.
June: A federal judge orders Starr to turn over Tripp tapes to Montanarelli.
June 18: Howard grand jury hears evidence prosecutors obtained from Lewinsky.
July 30: Grand jury indicts Tripp on two counts of violating Maryland's wiretap law for taping a Dec. 22, 1997, conversation.
Nov. 19: Tripp is granted a pre-trial hearing that forces state prosecutors to prove their evidence was not tainted by her federally immunized testimony. When witnesses are granted court-ordered immunity, prosecutors must find evidence that is completely independent of that immunity deal.
Dec. 13-17: At those hearings, Judge Diane O. Leasure hears state's evidence and Lewinsky testifies that she remembers seeing a partial transcript of the Dec. 22, 1997, conversation in a February 1998 Newsweek story. She says the conversation is "etched" in her mind.
May 5: Leasure agrees with Tripp's lawyers that Lewinsky is "bathed in impermissible taint" and rules her out as a witness. Leasure criticizes Lewinsky's credibility, saying she might have "shaped" her December testimony and was overly exposed to Tripp's immunized testimony.
May 22: Leasure denies the prosecution's request to "clarify" her ruling, saying that Lewinsky cannot testify about anything except that she never consented to have Tripp tape her.
In reaction to those legal defeats, state prosecutors drop the case.
Del Quentin Wilber and Andrea Diconi