In the government’s attempts to prove that three iconic athletes — Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — lied about using performance-enhancing drugs, it essentially whiffed every time. On Monday, a federal jury in Washington found Clemens not guilty of lying to Congress about whether he had used illegal substances. In February, federal prosecutors dropped their doping case against Armstrong, and last April, a jury convicted Bonds of an obstruction-of-justice charge but could not reach unanimous verdicts on the three counts of perjury about his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. The government will not retry Bonds on the perjury counts; he was sentenced to 30 days of house arrest.
At best, the government hit a bloop single.
Law students won’t be trying to mimic the Clemens prosecution. The government’s first crack at him ended in disaster: last summer, on the second day of testimony, the government presented inadmissible evidence to the jury, and the judge declared a mistrial. This time around, two jurors fell asleep during the trial, which lasted two months. The defense team damaged the credibility of the key witness, Clemens’ former personal trainer Brian McNamee, who allegedly injected Clemens with performance-enhancing drugs. In court, McNamee’s estranged wife disputed his assertion that she told him to save the syringes he used to inject Clemens to prevent him from becoming the fall guy if any steroid allegations went public. She denied ever saying this to him.
Plus, another key witness, New York Yankees pitcher and Clemens friend Andy Pettitte, backtracked on his testimony. After saying in court that Clemens admitted to him in 1999 or 2000 that he had used human growth hormone, he later said there was a “50-50″ chance he might have misunderstood Clemens. Pettitte seemed to have little incentive to make up a story about his friend — he was a star witness for the prosecution. Suddenly, he created reasonable doubt for the jury.
With the Clemens trial in the books, we’ve likely seen the end of the government’s criminal prosecutions of big-name alleged drug cheats in sports. That’s good news. (Yes, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, funded in part by federal money, is now building a case against Armstrong, but that effort seems in line with its mission). The U.S. is mired in an economic slump, so every public expenditure is under considerable scrutiny — and for good reason. There are more pressing cases to pursue. And after these three recent misfires, why should the government have the confidence to chase possible drug cheats?
Finally, steroid fatigue hasn’t suddenly dissipated. Long ago, fans had their sport-bar debates about whether stars like Clemens, Bonds and Armstrong cheated; despite verdicts, either you believe a Roger Clemens or you don’t. Then you enjoy a guy like R.A. Dickey pitching two straight one-hitters. You move on.
Hopefully the government will soon do the same.