A criminal court case, no matter the complexity of the charges, can typically be reduced to a single question. In the perjury trial of former Giants slugger Barry Bonds, which began on March 21 in a federal courthouse in San Francisco, that question would seem unambiguous: Did Bonds lie in 2003 when he told the BALCO grand jury that he did not knowingly take steroids?
The case has dragged on so long, however, and the government has spent so much time and money (around $6 million, by one estimate), and investigators have displayed what has appeared to be such a fixation on nailing Bonds, that another question has emerged that the jury will be asked to consider: Is Barry Bonds a victim?
It is a hard notion to wrap your head around. Many believe that Bonds, the surly home run king, almost certainly lied before the grand jury when he denied knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs, and that the government has ample evidence to prove it. Prosecutors possess a drug test showing that Bonds used one of BALCO's designer steroids along with Clomid, a fertility medication used to mask it. Three witnesses—Bonds's former girlfriend Kimberly Bell, his onetime teammate Bobby Estalella, and his longtime friend and former business manager Steve Hoskins—are expected to testify that Bonds discussed his PED use with them. Bell and others are also expected to talk about changes to Bonds's body that are consistent with someone on steroids or human growth hormone.
Several former players who, like Bonds, were clients of trainer Greg Anderson are expected to testify that Anderson provided them with BALCO drugs and counseled them on how to use them. The players' testimony will undermine Bonds's assertion that he was unaware that Anderson was supplying him with PEDs. (Anderson has refused to testify at the trial and will be jailed for the duration.)
If all else fails, the jury may still convict Bonds on what some might consider a technicality. Among the four perjury charges Bonds faces, one relates to statements he made that Anderson never injected him. Kathy Hoskins, Steve Hoskins's sister, is expected to provide eyewitness testimony to the contrary.
The defense will try to introduce doubt by attacking the credibility of those witnesses. Bonds's defense team has accused Bell of trying to extort money from Bonds; Hoskins is alleged by Bonds to have stolen money and memorabilia from him. But doubt and reasonable doubt are not the same. The smart money is on a conviction.
So, if Bonds is most likely guilty, how might the jury see him as a victim? Start with the ambiguity of the questions asked by assistant U.S. attorney Jeffrey Nedrow during Bonds's grand jury testimony; a few follow-up questions by Nedrow would have clarified Bonds's statements. The defense team will also highlight that this is potentially a career case for Nedrow, fellow prosecutor Matthew Parrella and investigator Jeff Novitzky. They will be portrayed as being fixated on exposing and embarrassing the slugger. "One argument that will likely be made is that from the beginning the BALCO investigation was always about Bonds," says former federal prosecutor Richard Cutler.
Then there is the length of the case, which was kept alive even as the evidence against Bonds was weakened by Anderson's refusal to testify and evidentiary rulings by Judge Susan Illston that favored the defense. Furthermore Bonds's alleged lying may be perceived as not worthy of the effort. "There probably wasn't a case I worked on where someone I put before the grand jury wasn't entirely truthful," says Cutler. "But [we] decided our resources were better spent elsewhere." The defense, Cutler says, may have some success portraying the prosecution of Bonds as an example of government run amok.
This argument shouldn't be dismissed as merely clever lawyering. There is an underpinning of truth to the premise that the government has ill-served the people with its Ahab-like pursuit of Bonds. Federal prosecutors not working the Bonds case privately complain about the resources dedicated to his prosecution. Because of budget cuts, they are working shorthanded on drug and immigration cases, issues they would argue are far more important than nailing one guy for lying to a grand jury. And even if Bonds is convicted, he is unlikely to spend significant time in jail. The longest sentence given so far to BALCO perjurers was a year of home confinement.
If Bonds receives little jail time or is acquitted despite the evidence, it may resonate beyond this case. Prosecutors of Roger Clemens, who is accused of lying to Congress about doping, and those investigating Lance Armstrong (including Novitzky), might be forced to recalibrate the public's tolerance for lengthy legal battles with athletes who allegedly took PEDs. It could lead to a slowdown of the government's war against doping.
That would be an odd postscript to the Bonds saga: The face of baseball's steroid era helps other alleged dopers avoid scrutiny because a jury sees his actions as less detestable than those of the government.
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Another question has emerged that the jury will be asked to consider: IS BARRY BONDS A VICTIM?
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW