In what may wind up as the final inning in the long-running Balco steroids scandal, a federal appeals court on Friday swatted away home run king Barry Bonds' bid to erase his obstruction of justice conviction from one of the most infamous record books in sports history.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Bonds' 2011 conviction for his testimony to a federal grand jury probing the Balco steroids case, rejecting legal arguments that he was convicted of simply providing a rambling answer that did not amount to a crime.
In a unanimous three-judge opinion, the 9th Circuit found that Bonds' "evasive" and "misleading" testimony could have misled the grand jury as it investigated a now-defunct Peninsula laboratory's role in spreading steroids throughout the sports world nearly a decade ago. In that testimony, Bonds repeatedly denied using steroids as he chased baseball's home run records.
"We conclude there was sufficient evidence to convict Bonds of obstructing justice," 9th Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder wrote for the court.
While Bonds and his lawyers may have a few swings left at the government's case, the ruling could spell the end to a legal saga that tarnished the former San Francisco Giant's image and home run records and still reverberates through baseball, which continues to struggle with players using performance enhancing drugs.
Legal experts were somewhat surprised at the 9th Circuit's resounding rejection of Bonds' legal arguments, which many lawyers said raised troubling questions about the trial and verdict. The jury that convicted Bonds on the obstruction charge, deadlocked on three perjury charges, which federal prosecutors later dropped.
"I'm surprised because the opinion in some sense doesn't do justice to the complexity of the arguments," said Rory Little, a former federal prosecutor and Hastings College of the Law professor. "It just makes you wonder whether his celebrity status and the general feeling everyone has that he lied influenced (the decision)."
Bonds released a statement saying he would like to begin serving his sentence while his lawyers pursue further appeals. Bonds can ask the 9th Circuit to reconsider the case with an 11-judge panel, or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The slugger who finished his career in 2007 is trying to set aside his felony conviction and sentence of two years' probation and a month of electronic monitoring at his Southern California home. Bonds has been hoping to clear his name as perhaps the most prominent figure in baseball's steroids era, a status that clouds his once certain chances of joining baseball's Hall of Fame. Hall voters have thus far denied him entry into Cooperstown.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's office declined to comment Friday on the Bonds case.
U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, whose office pursued the Bonds prosecution through years of legal fights and setbacks, said she is "gratified" by the 9th Circuit decision, adding: "We believe justice is served."
The jury specifically convicted Bonds for a rambling answer to a question about whether his former personal trainer, Greg Anderson, had ever supplied or injected him with steroids. The answer included musings about being a "celebrity child with a famous father" and other remarks that jurors said later were meant to evade questions about his steroid use and relationship with Anderson.
Bonds' high-power legal team argued that the testimony was too broad to amount to a specific crime under obstruction laws, but the 9th Circuit disagreed.
"The statement served to divert the grand jury's attention away from the relevant inquiry of the investigation, which was Anderson and Balco's distribution of steroids and PEDS," the court wrote. "The statement was therefore evasive."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz