Government again fails to bring down superstar athlete

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LOS ANGELES — The federal government pursued a drug case against home run king Barry Bonds for more than seven years. The end result: a guilty verdict on just one count and a sentence of 30 days confinement at Bonds’ estate in Beverly Hills.

Lance Armstrong  DAMIAN DOVARGANES/ASSOCIATED PRESS
DAMIAN DOVARGANES/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Lance Armstrong

Prosecutors’ first attempt to convict star pitcher Roger Clemens ended in a mistrial, so they’re preparing for another attempt in two months.

And now the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles has decided that after presenting evidence to a federal grand jury over nearly two years, it will not pursue charges against Lance Armstrong, the cyclist who beat cancer and won the Tour de France seven consecutive times but was shadowed by doping allegations throughout his unprecedented run.

After all the time and effort that has gone into such cases, some are wondering whether the government should continue the pursuit of athletes who are suspected of cheating with performance-enhancing drugs.

“This is an example where prosecutors are out scouring the countryside to bring charges against a high-profile athlete,” said defense attorney Mark Werksman, a former federal prosecutor. “It’s disturbing that they contort and stretch to find a crime. It’s an abuse of federal power. It’s wrong.”

The 40-year-old Armstrong maintains he has never failed a drug test, but he nonetheless became the focus of investigators’ attention after former teammate Floyd Landis accused him in 2010 of participating in a doping program.

Finally, however, prosecutors decided not to press their case.

Prosecutors missed on two other recent occasions, when the goal was landing a major conviction against superstars. Bonds was found guilty of obstruction of justice and sentenced in December to home detention, but jurors deadlocked on whether he lied to a grand jury when he denied knowingly using PEDs.

The steroids case against ace Roger Clemens became derailed last summer after a judge declared a mistrial when prosecutors showed jurors inadmissible evidence. Trial is now set for April 17.

The investigations into Bonds, Clemens and Armstrong had a larger context – an effort to clean up professional sports that had been dirtied by positive drug tests and admissions from some athletes that they had taken PEDs.

The most famous of these investigations involved the notorious Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, a steroids ring operating just outside San Francisco. And while the sentences were relatively light, the federal probe did result in 11 convictions – including Bonds’ – and helped spark stronger anti-drug efforts in baseball.

“One of the lessons of the Bonds case is that juries do not like to convict professional athletes who they hold as heroes,” said Mathew Rosengart, also a former federal prosecutor. “To the government’s credit, they used their discretion wisely.”

Government officials declined to say how much money was spent on the Armstrong probe.

Going forward, some legal experts said, the government’s time might be better spent prosecuting other crimes – rather than sending a message to the professional sports community.

“In light of this decision and the Bonds and Clemens investigations,” Rosengart said, “the government may be more willing to defer to the regulatory agencies to police alleged misconduct of athletes.”

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