by: Tammy Thomas
Last week, Barry Bonds managed to hit the most important home run of his career when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial jury’s 2011 decision finding him guilty of obstruction of justice in his BALCO testimony. So why does my conviction still stand while Bonds gets a free pass?
In 2003, like Bonds, I was called to testify before a federal grand jury in San Francisco. At the courthouse, I faced the same prosecution team that Bonds faced. They were investigating illegal steroid distribution to athletes. I was an Olympic-level track cyclist, and yes, I had doped — my positive tests had already gotten me in trouble with anti-doping officials.
Early in my testimony, I goofed. I lied. It was a mistake, as I’ve admitted. I tried to correct course by providing testimony about my coach, who injected me with steroids. I didn’t get doped to the gills all by myself. But the prosecutor stopped me and told the grand jury that he already knew all about that.
Over the next few years they prosecuted the BALCO case. The feds had raided the home of Bonds’ longtime friend and personal trainer, Greg Anderson, and found designer steroids and a pile of cash. Anderson took a guilty plea and served jail time, but he refused to testify — complicating the government’s case that Bonds had committed perjury.
Then, in late 2006, I was indicted for perjury. It was a shock. I was out of sports. I had already made significant changes in my life to become a better person. I was in law school. Now I had to mount a defense. Unlike Bonds, who had already hired an army of attorneys, I was poor. My parents in Mississippi dipped into their retirement fund and hired a lone defense attorney.
Why didn’t the government go after Bonds first? It’s my opinion, and that of many observers, that the feds opted for the easy kill. Maybe they were bent on sending Bonds a message. Maybe they thought Anderson would crack. Either way, they waited another year before indicting Bonds, and by the time my trial began, the public’s stance on athletes and steroid testimony was changing fast.
It was early 2008, and Congress had just held hearings on the Mitchell Report, where Roger Clemens was accused of committing perjury. My trial was painful beyond words. It was also a big opportunity for Bonds’ legal team. With me coming to bat first, Bonds’ attorneys were able to get a close look at the government’s repertoire of curveballs, sliders, fastballs, and sinkers.
U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston issued all kinds of rulings on evidence; the Bonds lawyers knew that if a legal argument didn’t work for or against me, it certainly wasn’t going to work for or against their own client. His attorneys were able to change their arguments based on what failed to work for me.
I was convicted, and it was devastating. I was branded a felon for life. I lost basic civil rights (the right to vote, the right to keep and bear arms). Forget law practice, it has been difficult even to just find housing. I’ve had a hard time finding a job, and because of that, I live in poverty.
And Bonds? The biggest fish managed to wriggle off the hook of the BALCO prosecutors. Anderson stayed silent — even spending the duration of the Bonds trial in prison for contempt. The jury was hung on Bonds’ perjury counts, and convicted him on obstruction. But now it was 2011, and seemingly everyone — the judges, jury and the public — was tired of hearing about the government’s prosecution of athletes. The Bonds legal team began the lengthy, expensive work of appealing his sentence, and last week they finally succeeded in getting it overturned.
The principal concurring opinion in the Bonds appeal is a slap in the face to those defendants with less popularity and financial resources. I’ve read the Ninth Circuit’s decision, and I think it is more a self-indulgent reflection than a well-reasoned jurists’ opinion. And it’s a problem; precedent is now different in the Ninth Circuit.
Judges have a tendency to forget that felony convictions stick with criminal defendants for the rest of their lives — although not for home run kings.
I am one of those stuck with a felony perjury and obstruction of justice conviction attached to my name for the remainder of my life. Bonds? People are already talking about sending him to the Hall of Fame.
It would relieve some stress to not have my obstruction conviction hanging over my head. Bonds, Clemens and Lance Armstrong enjoy a freedom that is out of reach for me.
Unlike them, I have cooperated with leaders of the anti-doping movement, sharing my story with people who can make a difference.
Although my perjury conviction remains on my record, at least I can go to sleep at night with a clear conscience.
Baseball forgives in a way that Olympic sports never will. Bonds is already being celebrated in a way that Armstrong probably never will be, even considering how epic Armstrong’s doping was. But the big difference isn’t between cycling and baseball; it’s between rich and poor.
Access to justice should be open to all citizens, not just the rich and famous. Why are some targeted and punished so harshly while some are not punished at all? It’s enough to make a reasonable American wonder if the richest citizens can make the same mistakes as the poorest and not suffer any real consequences.
It’s not a fair ending to the BALCO saga, but there’s no crying in baseball.
Tammy Thomas, a graduate of the University of Oklahoma College of Law, is available for public speaking engagements. She lives in Mississippi, where she offers personal training services through MS Fitness Pro LLC.