The Barry Bonds Verdict: Truth Strikes Out

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When it comes to knowing what really happened with the homerun king and steroids, we're not much further along than we were when the trial started.

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Reuters

Sometimes a criminal trial reveals the essential truth about a person, place or thing. And sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it is a searing test of evidence. And sometimes it isn't. A federal trial in San Francisco may have just given us its mixed verdict in United States v. Barry Bonds but it has done little to give us meaningful answers to the questions we all have about the former baseball star and his ties to steroid use.

Wednesday afternoon's result is as muddy and unsatisfying as was the eight-year-long criminal investigation that proceeded it, the four-year-long case that spawned it, and the three-week-long trial that shaped it. A federal jury of eight women and four men judged Bonds guilty of obstruction of justice—of providing evasive answers during grand jury testimony—but deadlocked on three other "false statements" charges. One of the deadlocks, on a charge relating to whether Bonds had lied about being injected with steroids, reportedly produced an 11-1 count in the government's favor. A holdout! Cue the boys at ESPN. 

Legal experts in the coming days are sure to parse the nuances and contradictions revealed by the jury's conclusions. The bottom line? At least one member of panel didn't think the feds' witnesses were credible enough to stand on their own. But jurors didn't believe Bonds' story, either, such as it was. He was acquitted of nothing. The mixed result here thus is mostly a reminder that there are good reasons why prosecutors always throw in catch-all charges at the end of indictments. They work! They give jurors a place to seek and find compromise. The catch-all phrase of "obstruction of justice" snared Martha Stewart, and then I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and now Major League Baseball's all-time homerun king* himself.

Where does that leave the rest of us? When it comes to knowing what really happened with Bonds and steroids, we are not much further along than we were when the trial started. Bonds didn't testify. Can you blame him? What would have been the point? It was his own testimony before a grand jury that got him into this mess in the first place. Nor did the world hear from the government's star witness, the slugger's former trainer, Greg Anderson, whom prosecutors alleged injected Bonds with performance-enhancing drugs. No, Anderson went to jail instead, over and over again, lest he be required to tell the truth under oath. I'm not knocking the Fifth Amendment, mind you. I'm just saying the price we often pay for it is the revelation of public truth.

Indeed, jurors saw only a fraction of the government's evidence against Bonds. Some of it was rejected by the judge before trial. Some of it was rejected by the judge during the trial. There were 11 charges against Bonds. Then there were five charges against him. Then the judge tossed one more—there were four. This winnowing of evidence and charges, so dramatic in this case, actually is a common function in courts all over the country; it's what judges are supposed to do. The rights of the accused are simply more important than the rights of the rest of us to know the story. I think that's in the Constitution somewhere. What about the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, you may ask? Didn't anyone tell you? In the law, that's a micro, not a macro, concept. It applies to witnesses, not stories.

As interesting as the legal debate will be over the Bonds' verdict, and what happens next, the conversation in the baseball world ought to be an order of magnitude more fierce. Will Team Bonds go so far as to assert that the former star of the San Franisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates was exonerated by this jury? What will the baseball writers, the ones who vote on membership in baseball's Hall of Fame, think of all of this? The Bonds' jury could have done them all a favor by reaching a clear decision. Instead, and pardon the pun, jurors simply gave themselves an intentional walk. Some baseball writers now will say that no jury ever convicted Bonds of lying about steroids. Some writers now will say that Bonds is a felon. Each group will be correct.

No matter what sentence Bonds receives from the judge—imagine how angry ol' Martha will be if Barry walks without prison time!—there is virtually no chance that prosecutors will again bring their "false statements" case, the deadlocked ones, against Bonds. You could come to that conclusion Wednesday afternoon when federal lawyers in court so eagerly agreed to accept a mistrial on the charges jurors could not unanimously agree upon. The feds are done with this case and so are the rest of us. The government should say so, and then encourage Anderson to come in from the cold so he can finally speak his piece. Now that the jury has spoken with a muffled, discordant voice, it's time.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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