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Barry Bonds put on probation in BALCO steroids case

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Barry Bonds, holder of baseball’s career home run record and former San Francisco Giants superstar, was put on probation today for obstructing justice in the BALCO steroids scandal.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston rejected a plea by federal prosecutors to punish Bonds with a 15-month prison term on his felony conviction for obstruction of justice. She also agreed to postpone imposing the sentence pending appeal.

In April, the former slugger was found guilty of equivocating under oath about his use of banned drugs in 2003 testimony before a federal grand jury. In Bonds’ trial, the jury deadlocked on three perjury charges. Bonds’ lawyers have said they would appeal his conviction.

Bonds declined to speak at the hearing. He listened impassively as the judge read the sentence.

The judge put Bonds on two years' probation. She ordered 30 days of electronic monitoring and restricted him to his Beverly Hills home for that time. He also was ordered to perform 250 hours of community service with youth programs and fined $4,000.

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"I think the jury got it exactly right," the judge said of the verdict. "Mr. Bonds did make an effort to obstruct justice here, but he didn’t succeed." Despite Bonds' evasive testimony, federal investigators managed to take down the steroid ring centered at the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative in Burlingame, convicting the drug dealers.

Sports leagues also cracked down on steroid use, she noted, and the nation was educated on the issue of performance-enhancing drugs.

"To the extent that was the point" of the BALCO probe, "that point has been has been carried out over and over again," she said.

Earlier, prosecutor Matt Parrella described Bonds as "unrepentant and unapologetic" and said he had taken steroids for years, "made a lot of money from it" and lied about what he was doing. He urged Illston to impose a prison term.

The sentencing hearing at federal court in San Francisco brought an anticlimactic end to the federal investigation into steroid-dealing at BALCO. The drug lab supplied steroids designed to beat state-of-the-art drug tests. More than 30 elite athletes in baseball, Olympic track and field, and NFL football became customers, court records show.

Nationwide, most defendants who are convicted of obstruction of justice in federal court serve some prison time, said New York lawyer Patrick Mullin, a federal sentencing expert. But in the long-running probe of BALCO, easy sentences have been the rule.

Victor Conte, BALCO’s proprietor and mastermind of the conspiracy to corrupt sports with undetectable steroids, was sentenced to four months in prison via a government plea agreement.

Three other sports figures convicted of lying about their involvement with BALCO drugs – former San Francisco 49ers lineman Dana Stubblefield, elite track coach Trevor Graham and bicycle racer Tammy Thomas – avoided prison.

Greg Anderson, Bonds’ weight trainer and his reputed steroid supplier, served more than a year in prison. But most of that sentence was for contempt of court after Anderson refused to testify about Bonds and drugs.

Although Bonds avoided prison, his association with BALCO left him with a felony conviction and a reputation as a drug cheat.

His induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame – once a foregone conclusion, given that the home run record is the most hallowed in the sport – is now problematic, said former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent.

Bonds’ name goes on the Hall of Fame ballot next year. Selection is by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. So far, no star implicated in the investigation of steroid use has been inducted.

“My guess is, voters will punish Bonds for a while” by refusing to vote him into the hall, Vincent said in a telephone interview.

“But if he were to win his appeal, the amount of time on the punishment will diminish,” he said. Vincent said that whether Bonds is ultimately inducted will depend in great part on how baseball comes to view its so-called steroid era – the 15-year period in which as many as half of active ball players, by some estimates, were using performance-enhancing drugs.

Vincent said he personally believes that Bonds, despite his enormous skill as a baseball player, should never be admitted to the hall.

“My own view is anybody who took those drugs – and in my view there’s no doubt he took them – should be disqualified," Vincent said. "It’s a form of cheating and shouldn’t be countenanced in any way.”

With Bonds’ case over, baseball faces yet another trial involving a superstar and banned drugs. Roger Clemens, the former Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees pitcher, is scheduled to go to trial next year on charges of lying to Congress about his use of steroids.

According to documents and interviews, Bonds started down the road to BALCO in 1998, when St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire thrilled the nation by breaking the single-season home run record then held by Roger Maris.

According to Bonds' former girlfriend, Kimberly Bell, and other people who know him, the prideful Giants star became jealous of McGwire, whom he assumed had used steroids to boost his ability to hit home runs. After the season ended, Bonds began training with Anderson, an acquaintance from the San Carlos Little League who had become a weight trainer and steroid dealer.

According to documents seized by the government, Anderson supplied Bonds with steroids and human growth hormone. Bonds became far more muscular and hit with more power.

Before the 2001 season, Anderson introduced Bonds to BALCO, where Conte provided a refined drug regimen. That year, Bonds hit 73 home runs to break McGwire’s single-season record.

By then, BALCO had been targeted by federal drug agents. Agent Jeff Novitzky, a dogged investigator then with the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal division, staked out the lab and trailed Anderson from BALCO to the players’ parking lot at what was then called Pacific Bell Park. At night, he sorted through BALCO’s trash, where he found evidence of steroid-dealing. In September 2003, Novitzky led raids on BALCO and Anderson’s home, taking away significant evidence of drug use by a long list of elite athletes – including Bonds, according to the government.

After the raid, 31 athletes with ties to BALCO were subpoenaed before a federal grand jury, where they were granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for truthful testimony about BALCO and drugs.

Most subpoenaed athletes confessed to their drug use. But in three hours on the witness stand, Bonds refused to admit that he knowingly used steroids, and when pressed sometimes gave rambling and evasive answers. In response to one steroid-related question, Bonds began an extended monologue in which he described himself as a “celebrity child” who had been pushed into becoming a baseball player. For that answer, more than seven years later, the jury convicted him of a felony.

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