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Judge to rule on tossing Bonds felony conviction

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UPDATE: This post was updated with coverage of the hearing Thursday

A federal judge said today she would rule in writing on baseball slugger Barry Bonds’ plea to overturn his felony conviction from a trial on steroid-related perjury charges.

At a hearing in federal court in San Francisco, Judge Susan Illston listened to arguments from prosecution and defense attorneys on the legality of Bonds' conviction for obstruction of justice, the lone count on which the jury returned a guilty verdict. She gave little indication of what her ruling would be and no timeline.

Bonds’ lawyer, Dennis Riordan, urged the judge to toss the verdict, saying evidence was insufficient. But federal prosecutor Merry Chan said the jury had ample cause to convict the former San Francisco Giants star.

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In April, a jury found Bonds guilty of obstruction for giving a rambling, evasive answer to a question from a federal grand jury in 2003. The panel was investigating elite athletes’ use of banned drugs obtained from BALCO, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative in Burlingame.

On the witness stand, Bonds was asked whether he had ever received injectable drugs from his weight trainer, Greg Anderson, who later confessed to dealing BALCO steroids.

In a discursive reply, Bonds never addressed the question head on. At one point, he told jurors he had been “a celebrity child, not in baseball by my own instincts.”

Riordan, who is Bonds’ appeals specialist, urged the judge to set the verdict aside. The long-winded answer was literally a true statement, he said, and he argued that at other points in the testimony Bonds had addressed the question by denying Anderson had given him injectable drugs. He asked the judge to declare Bonds innocent – or at the very least order a new trial.

But Chan said there was nothing innocent about Bonds' answer .

It was “rambling, corruptly intended to evade, mislead and provide false testimony,” she told the judge.

The judge gave few hints about how she would rule. But at one point, she said she didn’t intend to merely consider the single question and answer underlying the conviction.

In an interchange with Riordan, she said she would “look at the totality of the evidence … in order to determine whether this statement could properly have amounted to an obstruction of justice.”

One juror refused to vote to convict the former San Francisco Giants star of lying about using banned drugs, jurors said in post-trial interviews. As the jury described it, the verdict was a compromise.

But the holdout agreed to join the other 11 panelists in finding baseball's home run king guilty of obstruction.

And so the jury returned its muddled verdict: The members deadlocked on three charges that Bonds had lied under oath to a federal grand jury about his use of steroids. But they convicted Bonds of obstruction, saying he deliberately misled the grand jury.

It would be a surprise if the judge set aside the verdict, said Golden Gate University law professor Peter Keane, who has followed issues in the case.

“She would likely leave that to the appellate courts,” he said about the points the defense has raised.

In 2003, Bonds testified before the U.S. grand jury that was investigating the BALCO sports steroids scandal. He repeatedly denied knowingly using banned drugs. At one point in the session, a prosecutor asked him if his trainer had ever given him any substance that ”required a syringe to inject yourself with.”

Bonds replied:

I’ve only had one doctor touch me. And that’s my only personal doctor. Greg, like I said, we don’t get into each other's personal lives. We’re friends, but I don’t – we don’t sit around and talk baseball, because he knows I don’t want – don’t come to my house talking baseball.

If you want to come to my house and talk about fishing, some other stuff, we’ll be good friends, you come around talking about baseball, you go on. I don’t talk about his business. You know what I mean? …

That’s what keeps our friendship. You know, I am sorry, but that – you know, that – I was a celebrity child, not just in baseball by my own instincts. I became a celebrity child with a famous father. I just don’t get into other people’s business because of my father’s situation, you see.

That answer was obstruction of justice, the jury ruled – a deliberate attempt to interfere with the grand jury’s probe.

Bonds still has not been sentenced. Under federal guidelines, he could be sentenced to prison, but experts believe he faces only a sentence of house arrest.

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