Commentary

Tammy Thomas verdict doesn't bode well for Barry Bonds

Originally Published: April 4, 2008
By Mark Fainaru-Wada | ESPN

SAN FRANCISCO -- Challenged for the first time to make its case in court, the government continued to pitch a shutout Friday in its prosecution of athletes connected to the BALCO steroids scandal -- a fact that will linger for the next several months as the Barry Bonds case plods forward.

After more than a week of testimony and fewer than two days of deliberations, a jury found former elite cyclist Tammy Thomas guilty on three counts of lying to a federal grand jury and one count of obstructing justice in connection with her November 2003 appearance before a San Francisco federal grand jury investigating steroid distribution to elite athletes. Thomas was acquitted on two other perjury-related counts. She is scheduled for sentencing July 25 and could face more than two years in prison.

[+] EnlargeTammy Thomas
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuTammy Thomas was found guilty on four charges on Friday. Here, she leaves the federal courthouse with attorney Tony Tamburello at an earlier proceeding.
The government currently is in the process of rewriting an indictment of Bonds, who was charged last November with four counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice based on his December 2003 testimony before the same grand jury that heard Thomas testify.

Perjury cases are said to be difficult to make, but the government has pressed the issue in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative proceedings. Until Thomas pushed her charges all the way to trial, two other athletes had cut deals in an attempt to minimize their sentences.

Former Olympic legend Marion Jones pleaded guilty to one count of lying to federal agents in the BALCO case (and one count of lying in a check fraud case), and is serving six months in federal prison. Former NFL lineman Dana Stubblefield recently pleaded guilty to one lying-related count and is scheduled to be sentenced on April 25.

Track coach Trevor Graham, who has been tied to a string of athletes who tested positive for banned drugs, is scheduled to go to trial May 19 on charges he lied to federal agents when they interviewed him in North Carolina in 2004. Graham has pleaded not guilty.

Members of the Bonds defense team sat in on the Thomas trial throughout, and they took particular note of testimony from Jeff Novitzky, the special agent for the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigations unit, who has been the lead investigator on the BALCO case.

It's unclear what, if any, impact the Thomas case will have on U.S. vs. Bonds, but it's sure to have provided some assistance to both sides. The government got a trial run at putting Novitzky through testifying in public for the first time, and similarly had a chance to present expert witness Dr. Don Catlin, who discovered two of the drugs at the heart of the scandal. It saw a minor preview of some of the ways Novitzky can and will be attacked by Bonds' defense attorneys.

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
Noel Vasquez/Getty ImagesAttorneys for Barry Bonds listened closely to the testimony in the Tammy Thomas case. They'll likely need to try different approaches if he goes to trial.
Team Bonds gained insights about potential weaknesses with Novitzky, Catlin and other evidence. Ethan Balogh, Thomas' attorney, was direct in his attack on Novitzky during closing statements, suggesting the IRS agent was merely out to make a name for himself and overreached in his investigation, targeting athletes.

That argument, though, didn't appear to fly. Nor did the suggestion that none of the athletes were necessary to a probe that was little more than a traditional drug distribution case. Balogh argued the government had the distributors, such as BALCO chief Victor Conte, dead to rights, and didn't need testimony from any of the end users.

In another defense argument, Balogh suggested Thomas had told the "literal truth" when she denied using anabolic steroids or receiving them from Patrick Arnold, the creator of some of the substances in the case. It didn't work for Thomas and her one strong attorney, but for Team Bonds -- and its legion of lawyers -- no potential defense is expected to be left untouched.

Bonds' lawyers could get another preview in about a month, if Graham sticks with his plan to go to trial. However, with each win, the government's case looks stronger. If a defendant goes to trial and loses -- as Thomas did -- stiffer sentences are likely to result. It's unclear how that dark reality might weigh on Graham and, potentially, Bonds.

Thomas represented the first athlete connected to BALCO to have a case go to trial. Initially, about 30 athletes and coaches were called to testify in front of the grand jury in Fall 2003, but at the time, all were identified as witnesses, not targets, in the conspiracy probe.

Each was given immunity from prosecution, with one caveat: If they lied, the government could come after them.

Thomas went in to her trial with a history of steroids baggage dating back to 2000, when she received a one-year ban from her sport after testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone. A year later, she won the silver medal at the World Track Cycling Championships in Belgium -- though testing records indicate she was benefiting from the steroid norbolethone at the time.

[+] EnlargeJeff Novitzky
AP Photo/Susan Walsh IRS agent Jeff Novitzky, shown here on Capitol Hill in Washington in February, apparently gave effective testimony in the Tammy Thomas trial. But he likely will come under a more serious attack if he testifies against Barry Bonds.

Norbolethone was the first iteration of the drug that in BALCO became known as "the clear," so named because it was undetectable on standard steroid tests. Arnold was the source of that substance, a steroid that had been developed in the 1960s but was never brought to market. After norbolethone, Arnold created a designer steroid that came to be known as tetrahydrogestrinone -- for which Thomas also tested positive.

After Thomas was discovered to have used norbolethone, she was hit with a lifetime ban from her sport. On the day the ban was upheld following her appeal, some in the Olympic community braced for a hostile response, believing Thomas had a reputation for erratic behavior. USA Cycling closed its offices in Colorado Springs for the day, and employees of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and Catlin's UCLA lab were apprised of the situation.

In court Friday at the San Francisco Federal Building, Thomas lashed out at the jury after the reading of the verdict.

"I already had one career taken away from me," she yelled. "Look me in the eye and tell me you know what I did. You can't do it."

She then turned her attention to Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Parrella and shouted, "You like to destroy people's lives."

Prosecutors declined to comment.

Mark Fainaru-Wada, co-author of "Game of Shadows," is a reporter for ESPN. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

ALSO SEE