Commentary

An aggressive, all-out defense

Clemens defense team leaves nothing to chance, has prosecution scrambling

Updated: June 6, 2012, 3:18 AM ET
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- It would be easy for Roger Clemens and his legal team to poke a few holes in the evidence against him and then argue to the jury that federal prosecutors have failed to meet the Constitution's requirement of proof "beyond a reasonable doubt." If they managed to convince one or two jurors, they could hope for a deadlock in the jury's deliberations and a mistrial and a technical victory.

That is not what they are doing. As they presented their 14th witness on Tuesday, they were in the middle of a massive effort that seeks nothing less than the total destruction of the government's effort and a not-guilty-on-all-counts verdict that will vindicate Clemens and begin to restore his legacy as one of baseball's greatest pitchers.

It's a highly unusual strategy. There was enough doubt about the government's evidence after the four-day cross-examination of the prosecutors' star witness, Brian McNamee, that many defense lawyers would have concluded their efforts and relied on the jury to find the necessary "reasonable doubt." McNamee confessed to numerous lies, mistakes and exaggerations, the kinds of admissions that most defense lawyers agree are enough to persuade one or more dubious jurors to hold out for a not guilty verdict.

But lead Clemens attorney Rusty Hardin's cross-examination of McNamee was only the beginning, not the end, of the defense effort.

Relying on a high school teammate, retired ballplayers, expert witnesses, a housekeeper, two masseuses, a broadcaster, and even an FBI agent, Hardin is offering answers to every element of the government's charges against Clemens. And there is more to come. Hardin says he'll finish his presentation of as many as 21 witnesses on Friday, and when he is done, it promises be an impressive accumulation of evidence.

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens
AP Photo/Manuel Balce CenetaFormer major league pitcher Roger Clemens, center, and his lead lawyer Rusty Hardin, leave federal court in Washington.

Here's a look at how the Clemens lawyers have responded so far to the government's charges that Clemens lied to Congress when he denied that he had ever used steroids or HGH.

At the center of the government's case is a trove of syringes, cotton balls, vials, and ampoules that McNamee claims he used to inject Clemens with performance-enhancing drugs. McNamee gathered the physical evidence after injecting Clemens in August 2001, stored it in a beer can and a FedEx box in his house, and finally turned it in to the government in January 2008. The prosecutors used an FBI expert and a forensic scientist from a private lab to show that Clemens' DNA was present on some of the materials.

On Tuesday afternoon, Bruce Goldberger, a Ph.D. forensic toxicologist who is the founder and director of a lab at the University of Florida, explained to the jury that the physical evidence did not meet the standards that apply to the collection and preservation of physical evidence.

Goldberger's testimony came after a vigorous and extended argument from Asst. U.S. Attorney Daniel Butler, who insisted to U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton that Goldberger was not qualified to offer expertise on the collection of evidence and was qualified only to examine substances (blood, urine, drugs) in his laboratory. Clearly impressed with Goldberger and his knowledge of evidence collection, Walton allowed Hardin to present the expert to the jury.

Commingling the cotton balls, the syringes, and the other materials in what may have been a damp beer can, Goldberger said, leads to the possibility of "cross-contamination" and precludes the connection of any of the materials to anyone.

Speaking calmly and persuasively in what was the most powerful testimony in the entire trial, Goldberger told the jury that "the possibility of contamination leads to unreliable laboratory conclusions" and "there must be certainty beyond a reasonable doubt before we can make the scientific connection" between the material and an individual.

In the course of Goldberger's testimony, the language of the trial was transformed with words like "manipulation" and "fabrication" and "garbage" suddenly being used in connection with materials the prosecutors had described as "medical waste."

Goldberger told the jury that the material was doubly suspicious because it had been "collected and preserved by the accuser." Hardin was soon referring to McNamee as the "accuser-collector."

Butler's cross-examination of Goldberger did not help as he quarreled with Goldberger about his qualifications and picked at him with questions about the "back story" of a piece of evidence. Butler succeeded only in allowing Hardin to come back with a question that prompted Goldberger to conclude that the physical evidence was the worst Goldberger had seen in 30 years of working with trial evidence.

On another central issue in the trial, Hardin has managed to suggest something that seemed totally unlikely  ballplayers' use injections of Vitamin B12 the way most of us use aspirin or Tylenol. Clemens, in what once seemed to be a weak response to allegations that he had been injected with steroids, claimed that the injections were B12.

Former pitcher Mike Boddicker told the jury that B12 injections were common during his 13 years in the big leagues and that he once walked into the Boston Red Sox training room and was surprised to see Clemens with his pants down being injected in the buttocks with B12. Boddicker, another charming and engaging witness for the defense, told the jury that he could see "B12" on the vial on the training table.

Like the other MLB players that Hardin and Clemens have presented, Boddicker seemed to capture the attention of the jury with his stories that he survived in the big leagues for 13 years with an 84-mph fastball and that he was once traded from the Baltimore Orioles to the Red Sox for Brady Anderson and Curt Schilling.

Prosecutor Steven Durham tried to cross-examine Boddicker by raising the well-known, unwritten law of an MLB clubhouse that what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse. It was supposed to show that Boddicker would skew his testimony to help Clemens. But, instead, it opened the door for Hardin to return with Boddicker's report that Clemens would frequently leave the clubhouse in uniform to visit children in Boston hospitals and that he insisted that his teammates tell no one, especially media, about it.

The enormous Clemens-Hardin effort clearly has the prosecutors scrambling. In his attempt to prepare for Goldberger's testimony, Butler was on the phone with Goldberger on Tuesday morning, only hours before Goldberger appeared before the jury. To prepare for Boddicker's testimony, the prosecutors sent an FBI agent to interview him on Sunday before his Tuesday appearance.

The defense strategy is proactive, and it is aggressive. It fits what we know of the Clemens way of doing things. It's working now, but as another great ballplayer said, "It ain't over 'til it's over."