WASHINGTON — Give Roger Clemens one more victory, one that offers validation – at least in a legal sense – to the 354 games he won as one of the most accomplished
pitchers in baseball history.
Instead of hugs on the mound from teammates, this one wrapped up with hugs from his family in the courtroom, with Clemens’ wife dabbing his moist eyes with a tissue. It was a courthouse shutout for The Rocket vs. the government of the United States: acquittal Monday on all six counts that he lied to Congress when he denied using performance-enhancing drugs.
“I put a lot of hard work into that career,” said Clemens, who had to fight back tears as he spoke to reporters. “And so again I appreciate my teammates who came in and all the e-mails and phone calls. Thank y’all very much.”
A trial that lasted into a 10th week produced less than 10 hours of jury deliberation over several days, capping an expensive, five-year investigation that is now another blow to the government’s pursuit of athletes accused of illicit drug use.
Clemens, 49, was charged with two counts of perjury, three counts of making false statements and one count of obstructing Congress over his testimony at a deposition and at a nationally televised hearing in February 2008. The charges centered on his repeated denials that he used steroids and HGH during a 24-year career with the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays and Astros that produced a record seven Cy Young Awards.
“I hope those in the public who made up their minds before there was a trial will now back up and entertain the possibility of what he has always said – using steroids and HGH is cheating and it was totally contrary to his entire career,” said Clemens’ lead lawyer, Rusty Hardin.
Clemens did not take questions after his brief statement outside the courthouse. The jury of eight women and four men declined comment through a court spokesman.
The U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia issued a statement thanking the jury and stating respect for the judicial process. But it will be hard for prosecutors to put a positive spin on another disappointing outcome for the Justice Department.
A seven-year investigation into home run king Barry Bonds yielded a guilty verdict on only one count of obstruction of justice in a San Francisco court last year, with the jury deadlocked on whether Bonds lied to a grand jury when he denied knowingly taking performance-enhancing drugs.
A two-year, multicontinent investigation that looked into possible drug use by cyclist Lance Armstrong was recently closed with no charges brought, though the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency filed formal accusations last week that could strip the seven-time Tour de France winner of his victories.
The first attempt to try Clemens last year ended in a mistrial when prosecutors played a snippet of video evidence that had previously been ruled inadmissible.
“I think he’s gone through enough,” said former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, who was the top Republican on the House Government Reform Committee when Clemens testified in 2008. “We did the appropriate thing in referring it over to Justice. But hopefully this will put it behind him. He’s a good citizen.”
The panel’s chairman at the time, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., also defended the decision to refer the conflicting testimony it heard to the Justice Department, but concluded: “The decision whether Mr. Clemens committed perjury is a decision the jury had to make and I respect its decision.”
This fall, Clemens’ name will appear on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time.
The government’s case relied heavily on Clemens’ longtime strength coach, Brian McNamee, who testified he injected Clemens with steroids in 1998, 2000 and 2001 and with HGH in 2000. McNamee produced a needle and other materials he said were from a steroids injection of Clemens in 2001, items that McNamee said he stored in and around a Miller Lite beer can inside a FedEx box for some six years.
But McNamee was the only person to claim firsthand knowledge of Clemens using steroids and HGH, and even prosecutors conceded their star witness was a “flawed man.” Clemens’ lawyers relentlessly attacked McNamee’s credibility and integrity. They pointed out that his story had changed over the years and implied that he conjured up the allegations against Clemens to placate federal investigators.
Some items associated with the beer can were found to have Clemens’ DNA and steroids, but the defense called the evidence “garbage” and claimed it had been contaminated or manipulated by McNamee.
Other evidence offered tenuous links between Clemens and performance-enhancing drugs. Former teammate Andy Pettitte recalled a conversation in which Clemens supposedly admitted using HGH, but Pettitte said under cross-examination that there was a “50-50” chance that he had misheard.
Convicted drug dealer Kirk Radomski testified he supplied McNamee with HGH for a starting pitcher and even sent a shipment to Clemens’ house under McNamee’s name, but Radomski had no way of knowing if any of the HGH was specifically used on Clemens. Debbie Clemens admitted receiving an HGH shot from McNamee, but she and McNamee differed over when the injection occurred and whether her husband was present.
Clemens’ lawyers contended that the pitcher’s success resulted from a second-to-none work ethic and an intense workout regimen dating to his high school days. They said that Clemens was indeed injected by McNamee – but that the needles contained the vitamin B12 and the anesthetic lidocaine and not performance-enhancing drugs.
Said Hardin after the trial: “This trial was the first chance we had to let somebody on his behalf question the accusations and what we knew were the wrong perceptions of him as a person. It got to where people thought arrogance was a man saying, ‘I didn’t do it.’ When a man says he didn’t do it, let’s at least start out giving him the benefit of the doubt.”
Monday’s verdict is unlikely to settle the matter in sports circles as to whether Clemens cheated in the latter stages of a remarkable career that extended well into his 40s – during a period in which performance-enhancing drug use in baseball was thought to be prevalent. Clemens himself told Congress at the 2008 hearing that “no matter what we discuss here today, I’m never going to have my name restored.”
A crucial barometer comes this fall, when Clemens’ name appears on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. His statistics would normally make him a shoo-in for baseball’s greatest honor, but voters have been reluctant to induct premier players – such as Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro – whose careers were tainted by allegations of drug use.
Clemens capped an outstanding career with age-defying performances well into his 40s. He went 18-4 and won his seventh Cy Young Award at the age of 41, and the next year posted a career-best 1.87 ERA. His 4,672 strikeouts ranked third in baseball history.
Clemens was invited to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 2008 after he publicly denied accusations made in the Mitchell Report on drugs in baseball that he had used steroids and HGH. He first appeared at a congressional deposition, where he said: “I never used steroids. Never performance-enhancing steroids.” He made a similarly categorical denial at a hearing about a week later, appearing alongside McNamee, who stuck to his story.
Soon after, committee chairman Waxman and ranking member Davis asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Clemens had lied under oath. In 2010, a grand jury indicted him on the six counts. Hardin revealed at the time that federal prosecutors made Clemens a plea offer, but the former pitcher rejected it.
This probably isn’t the end of the Clemens-McNamee conflict. McNamee’s defamation lawsuit against Clemens in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., has been on hold since February 2011, with U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. ruling the criminal trial should take place first.
The Clemens team said the quick verdict Monday was a bit of a surprise. Hardin said Clemens was working out with his sons near the Washington Monument when word arrived that the jury had a decision.
“There was some hurried people getting here,” Hardin said.