Roger Clemens trial: Can federal prosecutors nab a sports star at last?

Roger Clemens is facing his second trial on charges of lying to Congress, after the first was declared a mistrial. Federal prosecutors have had a rough ride trying to pin perjury on top athletes. 

By , Staff writer

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    This artist rendering shows former Major League Baseball pitcher Roger Clemens, standing, and his attorney Rusty Hardin, front left, facing prospective jurors inside federal court in Washington Monday.
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As jury selection starts Monday in the second federal trial of former baseball star Roger Clemens, the prosecution is in need of a home run, it seems.

Last summer, a federal judge declared a mistrial in Clemens’s first go-round in the courts after prosecutors entered evidence the judge had banned.

Before that, the federal trial of Barry Bonds yielded a conviction on obstruction of justice but a mistrial on the three other, more substantial charges of lying to a grand jury about alleged drug use. The government also failed to bring charges against multiple Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong after a two-year investigation into alleged performance-enhancing drug use.

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The government is trying to reverse the trend. The prosecution team has added three more lawyers – for a total of five – in their efforts to prove that Clemens committed perjury when he told a congressional committee in 2008 that he never took performance-enhancing drugs.

But perjury cases are “very difficult for the government” to win as most jurors fail to see why lying amounts to a federal offense, says Bill Mateja, a former US prosecutor based in Dallas

There are also questions about whether the federal government should be involved at all. The significance of the case is example Clemens – and, by extension, other baseball stars – set for young people and sport, says Ben Gershman, a law professor with Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y., and a former prosecutor with the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

“This is more about baseball players and baseball. It’s about our culture and the government’s willingness to police this game that is so critical to the American way of life,” Mr. Gershman says.

Certainly, the seven-time Cy Young award winner is, in many ways, a symbol of the game. 

“You’re talking about the most respected and adulated player in a generation,” Gershman adds. “So if Roger Clemens can cheat and lie and get away with it, people are going to say everybody else can do it.”

But others say the evidence is lacking for the government to finally get a conviction that feels like a solid win.

“With Barry Bonds, it was strike one against the government and with Lance Armstrong, it was strike two and with Roger Clemens, I’m predicting a strike three,” says Mr. Mateja. The government “certainly already had a shot at it, and they did not do all that well the first time.”

Those who have worked with Clemens suggest the government is overreaching.

“It’s almost as if the Department of Justice has a vendetta,” says Gene Grabowski, a crisis management consultant in Washington who worked with Clemens before the first trial.

Mr. Grabowski suggests that the pursuit of Clemens originated from a dispute between Lanny Breuer, the star pitcher’s original attorney, and then-House oversight committee chairman Henry Waxman (D) of California. Both men publicly disagreed on whether Clemens wanted to testify at the hearing or whether lawmakers bullied him into appearing under oath. Mr. Breuer also speculated in public that Mr. Waxman’s desire to make Clemens an example was politically motivated.

“This is not national security, this is not Watergate, this is not the [Monica] Lewinsky affair, this is a former baseball player whose attorneys got into a tiff with a committee chairman,” Grabowski says. “It makes one scratch one’s head.”

Irrespective of the outcome of this second trial, which is expected to last as many as six weeks, Clemens’s reputation is already damaged, he adds.

“Roger Clemens is being tried and convicted by a majority of people in this country because of the cynicism of our culture and it’s unfair,” Grabowski says. “Someone of his stature might have expected to have a very wonderful ending [to his career]. That probably won’t happen now.” 

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