On the night of Aug. 7, 2007, after he hit his historic 756th home run into the bleachers at AT&T Park, Giants outfielder Barry Bonds tried to dismiss the growing suspicion that he had broken sports’ most hallowed record by using steroids.
“This record is not tainted at all,” he told reporters. “Period.”
But three months later, Bonds was indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, accused of lying under oath when he told a grand jury in 2003 that he had never knowingly used steroids.
Now, in a trial that gets under way Monday in federal court in San Francisco, a jury will be asked to decide whether baseball’s home run king set his historic mark while using a long list of banned drugs.
He has pleaded not guilty.
For Bonds, 46, who has not played baseball since he was indicted, the stakes are high – even though most experts doubt he faces prison if convicted.
In 2008, Bonds’ trial judge, Susan Illston, sentenced two defendants who were convicted of lying to authorities about steroids in sports to home confinement, not prison. That sets a “baseline” for sentencing Bonds if he is convicted, experts say.
For Bonds, the trial represents a chance to repair a reputation badly tarnished by his association with the BALCO steroid scandal – and perhaps, to secure a place in baseball history that might otherwise be denied him because of presumed drug use.
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If Bonds is acquitted his chances of being elected to the Hall of Fame “go way up,” says former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent. “But if he gets convicted, it’s the end of the discussion for at least 30 years.”
Meanwhile, the trial is likely to further roil a sport that has been unable to get past what has been called its “steroid era” – 15 years when baseball was rife with performance-enhancing drugs.
Even after Bonds’ trial is over, more turbulence is likely: In July, former All-Star pitcher Roger Clemens is scheduled to go on trial in Washington, D.C., charged with lying under oath when he told a congressional committee that he had never used steroids.
Whatever the outcome, the Bonds trial will likely be “a hard-fought battle, like a heavyweight championship fight,” says defense lawyer William Keane, who defended Olympic track coach Trevor Graham in 2008 in a case similar to Bonds’.
Pretrial rulings favor Bonds
The prosecutors, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Parrella, won convictions in the trials of both Graham, accused of lying to investigators about giving drugs to track stars, and cyclist Tammy Thomas, also accused of perjury before the BALCO grand jury.
The prosecutors also obtained guilty pleas from five steroid dealers and provided evidence of steroid use in baseball to the internal probe of the game conducted by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.
But Bonds’ seven lawyers, headed by defense specialist Allen Ruby and appeals expert Dennis Riordan, bested the government in a series of pretrial rulings.
Exploiting trainer Greg Anderson’s refusal to testify, the defense persuaded Illston to throw out what the government said was some of its strongest evidence: private drug test results and doping calendars allegedly reflecting Bonds’ use of banned drugs.
Anderson, Bonds’ weight trainer, arranged the tests and kept the calendars, the government says. Without his testimony, the evidence is inadmissible hearsay, the judge ruled. The trial was delayed for two years while the government unsuccessfully appealed.
Indictment followed home run record
The federal probe of Bonds became public in September 2003, when an Internal Revenue Service investigator, Jeff Novitzky, led a raid on the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, a nutritional supplement company in Burlingame. Drug agents seized documents indicating that some of the world’s greatest athletes – Bonds among them – had been receiving undetectable designer steroids there, sometimes via Anderson.
The raid set up the confrontation that is the flash point of the trial: Bonds’ Dec. 4, 2003 grand jury appearance. Five other ball players, including then-New York Yankees star Jason Giambi, testified they had gotten steroids from Anderson, whom they met because he was Bonds’ trainer.
But Bonds testified Anderson had given him only flaxseed oil and arthritis balm, not “the clear” and “the cream,” the BALCO undetectable steroids. Bonds also denied that Anderson had ever given him an injection.
Those denials formed the crux of Bonds’ perjury indictment, although it was four years in coming.
In the interim, prosecutors obtained guilty pleas from Anderson and four other men involved in distributing BALCO drugs. Then they began pressuring Anderson to testify against Bonds. The trainer refused and served more than a year in prison for contempt of court.
Earlier this month, Anderson once again declared he would not testify against Bonds. The judge said she would send him back to prison.
Burden of proof
Even without the excluded evidence, the government’s case is “still winnable,” says Golden Gate University law professor Peter Keane, who has followed legal issues in BALCO and who is not related to defense lawyer William Keane.
Prosecutors can present one positive steroid test to the jury, from a 2003 urine sample collected by Major League Baseball. When retested, it showed Bonds was using “the clear” and “the cream,” prosecutors say.
After that, it will be up to the government’s 52 witnesses. They may include former Giants catcher Bobby Estalella, a BALCO customer who says Bonds admitted he was using steroids, and former Bonds assistant Kathy Hoskins, who says she saw Anderson inject Bonds in the navel in 2002. Her brother, Steve Hoskins, Bonds’ former business manager, gave the government a recording on which Anderson admitted providing undetectable steroids to Bonds.
Peter Keane says the jury will be able to infer Bonds was using steroids from all the muscle he put on during his years with the Giants. Also relevant are other body changes associated with steroid use, he says: Former girlfriend Kim Bell is prepared to testify that Bonds suffered from such possible steroid side effects as hair loss, back acne and sexual dysfunction.
But proving Bonds used steroids is only part of the government’s burden. To win a perjury conviction, prosecutors must prove he deliberately lied about issues that were important to the BALCO probe.
“The exact wording of the questions asked (and) the exact wording of the answers” become issues for the jury, says William Keane, the track coach’s lawyer.
The World Series factor
The government witnesses can expect intense cross-examination. Defense lawyers have denounced Bell, the former girlfriend, as an untruthful gold digger and accused Steve Hoskins of taping Anderson as part of an attempt to blackmail Bonds.
Most experts doubt Bonds himself will testify.
For the government, one challenge might be called the World Series factor. Prosecutors hope to screen out prospective jurors 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.
“The biggest thing that Bonds has going for him is the euphoria in the Bay Area over the Giants,” says Peter Keane, the law professor. “It’s his biggest hole card.”