Exploring the sheer absurdity of the Bonds verdict

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Having slept on it, here’s one more thought about the Bonds verdict that simply blows my mind.

Yesterday when I reacted to the verdict, I noted the absurdity of Bonds being convicted on his rambling answer in “Statement C” as listed in Count 5 of the indictment. That “Statement C” was Bonds saying, in response to a question about receiving injections, that Greg Anderson was a friend of his and that Bonds was a child of a celebrity. It was four brief beside-the-point statements. And, importantly, Bonds did eventually say unequivocally that, no, he didn’t receive injections. Take that for what it’s worth, but it was a clear answer to a clear question.

I thought it was crazy that such a statement — which had nothing to do with Bonds’ steroids use and in no way actually prevented the prosecution from getting an answer to its question — could form the basis of an obstruction of justice charge. I had missed it the first time around, but apparently Bonds’ lawyers identified the absurdity of this during jury instructions too.  From the San Jose Mercury News’ play-by-play (go to the 9:31 AM update):

9:31 a.m.: Bonds lawyer strenuously objects to one jury instruction

Before the judge began instructing the jury, Dennis Riordan, one of Bonds’ lawyers, objected strenuously to the instruction on the obstruction of justice count against Bonds, which enables the jury to find him guilty based on four separate statements. Some of those statements appear loosely tethered to the allegations that Bonds lied to a federal grand jury in December 2003 about using steroids.

For example, one of the statements covers the following response to a question about whether Bonds had ever been given anything from trainer Greg Anderson that required a syringe.

“That’s what keeps our friendship,” Bonds replied in rambling fashion. “You know, I am sorry, but that–you know that–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….”

Riordan argued that the jury could clear Bonds of allegations connected to steroids and injections and, under the instruction, convict him of a felony through that statement, at least in theory. Quoting Karl Marx and his famous statement that history repeats itself twice, first as tragedy and then as farce, Riordan said such a conviction would be “utterly a farce.”

The judge didn’t agree, of course. Nor did she agree with this over the past few years when she had the opportunity to strike that part of the charge and did not, despite striking many others from the indictment.  You’d have to ask her why she allowed this to remain, but it makes no sense that such a statement, on its own, could constitute obstruction of justice.

There is not a single case in the history of Anglo-American jurisprudence in which a witness, at some point, didn’t go off on a tangent that was at least momentarily non-responsive to a question.  As a lawyer, you’re trained to reel the witness back in and focus him or her on the question. In court, if it gets bad, you get the judge to order the witness to answer the question that was asked. In a deposition you rephrase or say “that’s nice, but that’s not what I asked, what I asked was …”  Indeed, getting a witness to answer the question asked when he doesn’t want to or simply is unable to is a basic skill every trial lawyer learns.

But apparently not in the Northern District of California. There, when a witness goes off on a tangent, the precedent is now set: you bring felony charges against him. And it doesn’t matter if he later did answer the question, like Bonds did, or if he cannot be found to have lied or have obstructed justice in any way apart from his brief tangent.

Man, I wish I knew back when I was practicing law that I could have difficult witnesses charged with felony obstruction. It would have made my life so much easier if I didn’t have to prepare good questions and work to elicit the information I sought through the application of trial advocacy skills.  Oh well. You live and learn.

(thanks to Moshe for the Merc’s play-by-play re: the jury instruction)

What happens with all the players the Braves lost yesterday?

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Yesterday’s unprecedented sanctions leveled on the Atlanta Braves hit them pretty hard, but it also turned a dozen players into free agents. What happens to them now? Who can sign them? When? And for how much?

First off, they get to keep their signing bonuses the Braves gave them. It wasn’t their fault the Braves messed up so it would make no sense for them to have to pay the money back. As for their next team: anyone can, theoretically, sign them. As far as team choice, they are free agents in the most narrow sense of the term.

There are limits, however, because as young, international players, their signings are subject to those caps on each team’s international bonus money which were imposed a few years back. Each team now has a “pool” of finite dollars they can spend on such players and, once that money is spent, teams are severely limited as to what they can offer an international free agent. Each summer the bonus pools are reset and it starts anew.

Which, on the surface, would seem to create a problem for the 12 new free agents, seeing as though a lot of teams have already spent much if not all of their July 2017-18 bonus pools. The good news on that, though, is that Major League Baseball has made a couple of exceptions for these guys:

  • First, the first $200,000 of any of the 12 former Braves players will not be subject to signing pools, so that’s a bit of a break; and
  • Second, even though these players will all likely be signed during the 2017-18 bonus pool period, teams have the option of counting the bonus toward the 2018-19 period. They can’t combine the money from the two periods, but they can, essentially, put off the cost into next year for accounting purposes.

Which certainly opens things up for clubs and gives the players more options as far as places to land go. A club can decide whether or not the guys on the market now look better than the guys they’ve been scouting with an eye toward signing after July 2018 and get a jump on things. Likewise, teams don’t have to decide whether or not to take a run at, say, Shohei Ohtani, burning bonus money now, or instead going after a former Braves player. Ohtani’s money will apply now, the Braves player can be accounted for next year.

The new free agents are eligible to sign during a window that begins on December 5 and ends on Jan. 15. If a player hasn’t signed by then, he can still sign with any club but cannot get a bonus. If a player hasn’t signed anywhere by May 1, 2018, he has the option of re-signing with the Braves, though they can’t pay the guy a bonus either.

Ben Badler of Baseball America has a rundown of the top guys who are now free agents thanks to the Braves’ malfeasance. Kevin Maitan is the big name. The 17-year-old shortstop was considered the top overall international free agent last year, though his first year in the Braves minor league system was less-than-impressive. There are a lot of other promising players too. All of whom now can find new employers.