Barry Bonds’ wealth didn’t ensure his acquittal; the government’s horrible case did

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The New York Daily News today ran an op-ed piece from Tammy Thomas, the former U.S. Olympic cyclist who, like Barry Bonds, was a BALCO client. Unlike Barry Bonds, however, Thomas was convicted of perjury and has had her conviction stick. Today Thomas said that Bonds’ money and fame is what got him off, while poor, less-famous athletes like her are stuck with a criminal record:

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? . . . Bonds, Clemens and Lance Armstrong enjoy a freedom that is out of reach for me . . . 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.

The fact that the IRS, the DOJ and a careerist investigator named Jeff Novitzky went after Thomas and the other BALCO athletes for criminal prosecution was appalling. Yes, Thomas and others lied to a grand jury and yes that’s a crime, but the notion of prosecutorial discretion in this case was thrown out the window here. Ultimately their perjury did not damage the government’s case against the drug distributor, BALCO, and in most situations like that unhelpful or even lying grand jury witnesses are not usually prosecuted. Here they were because it was a media-generating case and a lot of people in government were trying to make a name for themselves.

That all being said, Thomas is out to lunch here when she talks about Barry Bonds. Bonds is rich, yes, and wealth can, unfortunately, buy a lot more justice for someone in this country. But it didn’t do that here. The reason Bonds got off and Thomas did not was that the case against Thomas was substantially stronger.

Thomas had a close relationship with BALCO chemist Patrick Arnold, who directly supplied Thomas with drugs in exchange for cash. Arnold testified against Thomas, establishing that her grand jury testimony denying any illegal PED use or purchases was a lie. It was an open-and-shut perjury case with a straight perjury instruction. While the prosecution was ill-advised as a point of good prosecutorial policy, it was legally sound.

Bonds’ case was totally different. No person who directly supplied drugs to Bonds testified. No witness could provide any direct evidence that Bonds lied under oath. Now, I strongly suspect he did lie under oath about knowingly taking PEDs, and if his trainer, Greg Anderson, had testified he’d likely be convicted. But in our legal system you have to have proof. The government had none, knew it, proceeded with the case anyway and that’s why the jury found him not guilty. The one charge that remained — obstruction of justice — was entirely bogus given that no lie was legally established and the Court of Appeals properly overturned it.

I feel badly for Thomas. If you know anything about her backstory, you know that she had a horrible time of things separate and apart from her PED use and perjury. She had amateur coaches sexually abuse her. She competed in a sport and at a time where the pressure, subtle and direct, to take PEDs was great and likely found herself in no-win situations over and over again. After sports she tried to get on with her life and got a law degree, but had the prosecution effectively take away her legal career before it could begin due to its unnecessary prosecution. She now lives in poverty, struggling to maintain a business while struggling with serious health issues which are a direct consequence of her PED use.

But Barry Bonds’ acquittal has nothing to do her or her case. That she maintains that it does is unfortunate. And the fact that the Daily News gave her a platform to say so despite accurately reporting the strength of the case against her back in 2008 suggests to me that they’re more interested in continuing their crusade against doping ballplayers than they are in accurately portraying the BALCO case and everything that spun out of it.