Jury selection began in San Francisco today for the trial of former Giants slugger Barry Bonds, who is accused of lying under oath when he denied using steroids.
U.S. District Judge Susan Illston’s clerk swore in an initial panel of 38 prospective jurors for the trial of baseball’s reigning home run champion, the biggest star in the game’s long history to face felony indictment.
He has pleaded not guilty, saying he never knowingly used steroids.
The court clerk seated 14 panelists in the jury box, and another 24 in the courtroom. The judge said she would seat a panel of 12 jurors with four alternates for the trial, which will likely last four weeks.
The initial panelists seated in the jury box included a carpenter from Foster City, the head of a human rights fellowship program at UC Berkeley, and an Antioch retiree with prior jury service.
“It’s hard to make decisions about other people’s lives,” he remarked.
Another panelist, a retired San Francisco man who said he liked to watch baseball, said he wasn’t eager to serve.
“I would be reluctant to render a judgment against a great athlete like Mr. Bonds so it may cloud my judgment,” he said.
A Moraga woman who formerly worked as a flight attendant on charter flights for sports teams also said she would find it difficult to be fair.
“I’m still getting over my baseball charters,” she said.
The judge said she would do most of the questioning of prospective jurors. Federal prosecutors and Bonds’ lawyers are allocated 60 minutes to ask follow-up questions of panelists.
Prosecutors have six preemptory challenges, meaning they can remove six panelists from the jury without stating a legal reason. Bonds’ legal team has 10 challenges.
Before coming to court Monday, prospective jurors were asked to fill out a 19-page questionnaire, much of it aimed at learning just how much prospective panelists know about big league sports and drugs.
The questionnaire contained 63 questions, and 16 of them pertain to sports.
Questions included: Are panelists baseball fans? Are they fans of the Giants? How many baseball games per year do they attend?
Have they heard about baseball’s Mitchell Report, the sport’s investigative history of its steroid era? Did they watch the televised congressional hearings on steroids in elite sports? Have they heard of the BALCO steroids scandal? And, most of all, how closely did they follow news reports about Bonds’ case?
Experts said Bonds’ legal team, led by Alan Ruby, may not be able to screen out every person who is aware of steroid scandals in sports; instead, the task may simply be to find jurors who are willing to put that aside and focus on the evidence.
For the government team, led by Matthew Parrella, experts said one challenge in jury selection might be called the World Series factor. Prosecutors may try to screen out fans who want to give a break to a former star of the hometown team, which in 2010 won its first world championship since moving to San Francisco in 1958.
Saying she is worried that panelists would face harassment, the judge has decided not to reveal the names of Bonds’ jurors until after a verdict is returned. In court, jurors will be referred to by numbers, not names.
Bonds arrived at the courthouse at 7:50 a.m. in a black SUV, accompanied by a bodyguard and three other men. The former Giants star was wearing a dark suit. He walked past a fan wearing a black and orange T-shirt with the legend, “If Barry goes to jail then baseball can go to hell.” Bonds didn’t respond to questions from reporters.
Judge Susan Illston said prosecutors and defense lawyers had agreed to remove 38 prospective jurors from the panel for hardship. The decision was based on panelists’ responses to a questionnaire they filled out last week. Only 55 panelists came to court Monday for jury service – one had a death in the family, and four failed to appear. Two more were excused for hardship grounds in court.
At one point prosecutor Matthew Parrella told the judge the government intended to challenge 10 more panelists for cause, meaning they couldn’t be expected to serve as jurors because of bias or other legal reason.
Referring to the questionnaire, the prosecutor indicated he was concerned about the panelists’ answers to queries about their awareness of news accounts about Bonds and the BALCO steroids scandal. The judge agreed to excuse one panelist. She said she wanted to question the others before making a decision.