On April 14, after years of investigation and a twelve-day trial, a jury of eight women and four men convicted former baseball star Barry Bonds on one felony count of obstruction of justice. Given the need for unanimous verdicts for conviction, the same jury deadlocked on three other charges against Bonds. US District Judge Susan Illston declared a mistrial on charges that Bonds made false statements when he told a grand jury in December 2003 that he never knowingly received steroids and human growth hormone from trainer Greg Anderson and he allowed only his doctor to inject him.
As the worlds of sports and law chat obsessively about the trial, its most important meaning is that our jury system remains one of the most precious liberties we have. It was a winner in the trial, and so were we.
The verdict seems quite fair from what we know. Often there is a disconnect between what is presented to a jury and what was previously reported in the press about the alleged crime. But here, due to incessant news leaks, little seemed to have been presented to the jury that was not already in the public domain. It appears that Bonds took drugs, refused to admit it, and the government overreached in its hell-bent crusade against him. Both sides seem partially wrong, and that is the message that the jury gave them and us. Their verdict seems correct and feels like common sense.
After the verdict was read, defense attorney Allen Ruby pointed out that the government lost on “the heart of their case,” whether or not Bonds knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs. Ruby is right. The government probably spent tens of millions of our tax dollars on this prosecution, and its lawyers are certainly disheartened by the result. The failure to secure a conviction on three of four counts in a high-profile case is not good for a prosecutor’s career prospects. But for Bonds and his lawyers, a felony conviction is a big deal. “Convicted felon” is not a pleasant necklace for anyone to wear. And, of course the matter is not over. Appeals will follow.
After the trial, reporters were told by jurors that at least eight of the twelve jurors felt that prosecutors failed to show that Bonds knew he was taking steroids and human growth hormone. Jury foreman Fred Jacob of Marin City said it would take more evidence than prosecutors presented to convict Bonds on those remaining charges. “This cost the citizens a lot of money to bring him to court,” Jacob said. “They’re going to have to do even more homework than they already did.” Another juror, identified only as Amber, a young Oakland A’s fan, felt that Bonds was not proven to have lied, but said, “Obviously, he did steroids in my opinion.”
The verdict is much more important for reasons other than whether Bonds will be able to enter baseball’s Hall of Fame. It affirms the importance of our jury system.
In an age of increased spying on citizens by our government, our nation’s open and continuing participation in torture, and its refusal to commit to open and fair trials against those considered enemies of the state, there is reason to be nervous about the increasing power of the government. Our juries, which have their genesis in England nearly 1,000 years ago and which are guaranteed by the US Constitution, are an important check against unbridled government power. They began for this purpose. And, in the depressing reality of the state of our democracy in which the money of corporations and the wealthy can unduly influence elections and politicians, juries provide a means of interjecting community norms and values at least into some governmental proceedings.
Of course, the jury system is not perfect. Many in our country are excluded from jury service, the amount of money spent by the prosecution and defense can unduly influence the results, and judges appointed in the partisan process often excessively influence what jurors are allowed to hear. But over the life of this nation, juries have been conceded by all to be essential to political and civil liberties, and they remain so today.
And, we should recognize that juries serve another purpose in our look-out-for-number-one society. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote years ago, jury service “rubs off that private selfishness which is the rust of society.” Many of us complain about jury service when we are called. We should not. No one is too busy to serve.
At the conclusion of the trial, standing by his lawyer, Bonds was asked if he was going out for a celebratory dinner. He told the reporters, “There is nothing to celebrate.”
Bonds is wrong. There is something to celebrate. It is these twelve jurors and our jury system. The jury system is one of the most important protections we have and these twelve people reminded us of it.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story misstated that Barry Bonds was acquitted on three of the four charges. Instead, the judge declared a mistrial on the three charges. This version of the story has been changed to correct the error.