SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Barry Bonds’ obstruction of justice conviction was thrown out Wednesday by a federal court of appeals, which ruled 10-1 that his meandering answer before a grand jury in 2003 was not material to the government’s investigation into illegal steroids distribution.
“Real-life witness examinations, unlike those in movies and on television, invariably are littered with non-responsive and irrelevant answers,” Judge Alex Kozinski wrote.
Bonds, whose 762 home runs broke Hank Aaron’s long-standing career record of 755, was indicted in 2007 for his testimony four years earlier before a grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative.
“Today’s news is something that I have long hoped for,” Bonds said in a statement. “I am humbled and truly thankful for the outcome as well as the opportunity our judicial system affords to all individuals to seek justice. … I am excited about what the future holds for me as I embark on the next chapter.”
Jessica Wolfram, one of the jurors who convicted Bonds following the three-week trial and four days of deliberations, said she couldn’t help but feel the decade-long prosecution was “all a waste, all for nothing.”
“Just a waste of money, having the whole trial and jury,” she said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
In 2009 and ’10, the 9th Circuit ruled federal agents illegally seized records and urine samples of major league players, with Kozinski ruling then it “was an obvious case of deliberate overreaching by the government.”
Judges in the Bonds case based their decision on legal issues involving witness testimony, not the underlying facts.
Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, believed the decision was “almost meaningless for the real issue, which is whether he used performance-enhancing drugs to cheat the fans of baseball.”
“I think at the end of the day America knows the truth and who the real home run record holder is, who did it the right way, and it’s obviously not Barry Bonds.”
Following the trial that opened in March 2011, a jury deadlocked on three counts charging Bonds with making false statements when he denied receiving steroids and human growth hormone from trainer Greg Anderson and denied receiving injections from Anderson or his associates.
Bonds was convicted for his response when he was asked whether Anderson ever gave him “anything that required a syringe to inject yourself with.”
“That’s what keeps our friendship,” Bonds said. “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.”
Judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided there was insufficient evidence Bonds’ statement was material but divided on their rationale, issuing four separate opinions to reverse the conviction and one to uphold it. The appeals court barred a retrial, citing a prohibition on double jeopardy.
Kozinski, writing for himself and four other judges, was concerned the obstruction statute, “stretched to its limits … poses a significant hazard for everyone involved in our system of justice, because so much of what the adversary process calls for could be construed as obstruction.”
“One need not spend much time in one of our courtrooms to hear lawyers dancing around questions from the bench rather than giving pithy, direct answers,” he wrote.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote “this case involves nothing more than an irrelevant, rambling statement made by a witness during the course of a grand jury investigation.”
Wolfram said she remembers there being some confusion among the jurors over the fact that Bonds did answer the question later in the testimony.
Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson, the only member of the court to back prosecutors, wrote an opinion filled with baseball references that began “there is no joy in this dissenting judge,” added the judges who sided with Bonds “have struck out” and concluded “I cry foul.”
The government could ask the 11-judge panel to reconsider Wednesday’s decision or could request that all 29 judges on the 9th Circuit rehear the case. The full court has never sat on a case since it began using the “limited en banc” panels in 1980.
Prosecutors also could petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.
“I could not be more happy that Barry Bonds finally gets to move on with his life,” BALCO founder Victor Conte said. “Let’s hope the prosecutors choose not to waste any more resources on what has been nothing more than a frivolous trophy-hunt and a complete waste of taxpayer dollars.”
A seven-time NL MVP and the son of three-time All-Star Bobby Bonds, Barry Bonds was sentenced in 2011 by U.S. District Judge Susan Illston to 30 days of home confinement, two years of probation, 250 hours of community service in youth-related activities and a $4,000 fine. He already has served the home confinement.
Illston declared a mistrial on the three other counts, and the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco dismissed those charges in August 2011.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit upheld the conviction in a unanimous vote in 2013, but a majority of the court’s 28 participating judges voted to have an 11-judge panel rehear the case.
“The greatest impact is the damage it undid,” said Bonds’ appellate lawyer, Dennis Riordan. “We had a panel opinion that said if you’re asked a question on page 78 and you digress before you answer it directly on page 81, you’re a federal felon.”