WASHINGTON — Roger Clemens’ tenacious pursuit of victory on the pitching mound is re-emerging as he enters federal court this week to fight charges he lied about using drugs and ruthlessly tried to discredit the former friend who says he did.
Clemens is charged with perjury, false statements and obstruction of Congress for telling a House committee under oath that he never used performance-enhancing drugs during his 23-season career. The record-setting pitcher who once seemed a sure bet for baseball’s Hall of Fame now could face prison if 12 jurors agree that he lied and unanimously agree to convict him.
The trial of the United States vs. William R. Clemens, scheduled to begin Wednesday and last 4-6 weeks, will bring a parade of celebrity athletes and plenty of sordid details to the staid Washington federal courthouse. It will feature testimony about illicit drugs, bloody evidence of injections, an abscess on Clemens’ backside allegedly caused by steroid use and allegations that his accuser is a serial liar and a rapist.
Clemens isn’t the only all-star baseball player to be criminally charged for lying about drug use, and prosecutors have a mixed record. Infielder Miguel Tejada pleaded guilty in 2009 to a misdemeanor for withholding information about an ex-teammate’s use of drugs when questioned in 2005 by congressional investigators. But in their first jury test, prosecutors were able to convict home run king Barry Bonds of just one count of obstruction of justice in April for giving an evasive answer to a grand jury when asked about drug use. The jury deadlocked on the three remaining counts that Bonds made a false statement by saying he never knowingly received steroids and human growth hormone from his trainer.
But unlike the Bonds trial, where the trainer who allegedly provided injections refused to testify against his former boss and friend, Clemens’ strength trainer, Brian McNamee, is the prosecution’s leading witness.
For a decade, McNamee worked out intensely with Clemens and helped shape “The Rocket” into one of the most powerful pitchers in the major leagues, even into middle age. McNamee also says he injected Clemens with steroids and human growth hormone, and even kept the used needles that will be key scientific evidence at trial.
But McNamee, a former New York City police officer, is not an ideal witness for the prosecution. He acted as a drug dealer to several major league players and acknowledges he hasn’t always told the truth when asked about Clemens’ drug use and other matters. McNamee initially denied giving Clemens drugs, he says out of loyalty to his best and longtime client, but eventually admitted to federal agents he injected the seven-time Cy Young Award winner.
Clemens’ main defense has been to discredit McNamee, whom Clemens’ attorneys described in a recent court filing as “the only person in the entire world who has ever alleged that he witnessed Mr. Clemens use performance enhancing drugs at any time in his storied career.”
Clemens’ lawyers accuse McNamee of being a “congenital liar” who made up the allegations against their client to save himself from drug charges. They also want to introduce evidence that in 2001 McNamee drugged and raped a woman, then lied to police who investigated the allegation but never charged McNamee with a crime. “If Mr. McNamee’s mouth is moving, he’s making an inconsistent statement,” Clemens attorney Rusty Hardin said during a recent hearing.
Prosecutors are fighting to keep out evidence of the sexual assault investigation and plan to call several witnesses to back up McNamee’s allegations against Clemens. Among them are Clemens’ former Yankee teammates Andy Pettitte, Chuck Knoblauch and Mike Stanton, who all admit getting performance enhancing drugs from McNamee. Pettitte is particularly important because he’s the only witness besides McNamee who says he spoke with Clemens about his drug use.
The six felony counts against Clemens stem from the House Government Reform Committee’s 2008 investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Former Sen. George Mitchell had recently published a 400-page report that named Clemens and 85 other former and current major league players as users. Clemens denied the allegations and the House committee responded by opening an investigation into the dispute surrounding the Mitchell Report.
Clemens appeared voluntarily before committee staff for a deposition under oath on Feb. 5, 2008, in which he flatly denied ever using anabolic steroids or human growth hormone. Former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, then the top Republican on the committee, has said the panel was prepared to issue a written report based on the depositions it took from all sides, but Davis says Clemens wanted to testify. “There are people who think they can bluff their way through, and it’s hubris,” Davis told ESPNNewYork.com last year.
Davis has also suggested Clemens, an all-star athlete who did a lot for his community, might have been more credible if it was just his word against McNamee’s. But Pettitte backed up McNamee’s account.
Hardin has disputed Davis’ account. Harden said Davis urged Clemens to testify to avoid having the committee issue a report critical of him before he had a chance to tell the public his side.
Either way, Clemens testified at a Feb. 13, 2008, hearing without a subpoena and continued to insist he never used performance-enhancing drugs. The indictment accuses him of making 15 separate false statements during both the deposition and hearing testimony, including denials of drug use, insistence that Pettitte must have misheard him about using drugs and denials that he attended a party at admitted steroid user Jose Canseco’s house.
The six charges Clemens is accused of carry a maximum sentence of up to 30 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine. But it would be unlikely even if he were convicted that Clemens would be sentenced to nearly that long since he doesn’t have a criminal record.
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