Commentary

Questions to jurors hint at strategies

Courtroom interviews during jury selection tip hand of game plans in Barry Bonds trial

Updated: March 22, 2011, 9:45 PM ET
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- In only a few minutes of live, courtroom interviews of prospective jurors in the Barry Bonds perjury trial, both sides managed to set before the jury issues and themes that they will pursue during the trial. The interviews came Monday afternoon and added new material to the 19-page questionnaires the jurors had completed last week.

Although the interview process, known among lawyers and judges as "voir dire," is supposed identify fair and impartial jurors, seasoned trial lawyers use the process to begin to persuade jurors of the validity of their arguments. In the guise of questions about impartiality, they open doors to ideas that they will return to repeatedly during the trial.

Questions from lead prosecutor Matthew Parrella were a bit defensive and demonstrated the prosecutors' concerns about prosecuting a hometown hero on a steroids issue on which many fans have made their own conclusions. Defense lawyers introduced major ideas that will be at the heart of their advocacy for Bonds.

But neither the prosecutors nor the Bonds legal team ventured into issues of race, infidelity and friendship that will also be major factors in the trial. Even though former Bonds mistress Kimberly Bell and former personal manager Steve Hoskins are key prosecution witnesses, neither side asked about race, sex or betrayal.

The prosecution's interview questions show its concern that the defense may be able to succeed in a jury nullification strategy, a subtle series of suggestions that the case is a waste of government resources, that the case is too old, that the case is much ado about nothing, and that Bonds has already suffered enough. Even if Bonds lied to the grand jury, the theory goes, it is not important enough to convict him.

In his first questions to potential jurors, Parrella asked whether the "Giants are on trial here" and whether "anyone hoped the charges were not true." He tried to turn the focus from Bonds and steroids to the government's basic issue -- telling the truth to a grand jury.

"Are there any circumstances that would justify lying to a grand jury," Parrella asked in a question he directed to all 36 potential jurors. He clearly hoped to focus the jurors on the perjury issue, hoping they will set aside home-town bias and impatience with a case that began in 2003.

Interview questions from two of Bonds' lawyers, Cristina Arguedas and Allen Ruby, went straight to the heart of the defense. Arguedas told the jurors that the government must prove Bonds guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, "the highest standard of proof there can be in our court system." It's more a point of argument than a seeking of information from a juror, but Arguedas smoothly laid it before the jurors before the prosecutors could rise to object.

In a clever introduction to Hoskins' expected testimony against Bonds, Ruby asked jurors if they had ever purchased sports memorabilia. He managed to stumble over the word "memorabilia" often enough to make the point triple clear. At least six jurors had paid for memorabilia, demonstrating for the jurors that investing in jerseys and bats and autographs is a normal part of life. Hoskins will be cross examined on his stewardship of Bonds' memorabilia business with the Bonds team contending Hoskins was producing and selling fraudulent goods to unsuspecting consumers.

Ruby also managed to introduce the idea that just because witness is in the courtroom testifying under oath, that does not necessarily mean that the witness is telling the truth. In what passes for hilarity in a federal courtroom, he managed the biggest laugh of the day over the fact that people come to court and do not tell the truth.

The burden of proof, the integrity of the memorabilia business, and the veracity of witnesses are all themes that the Bonds legal team will return to again and again. And these jurors are now tuned in and ready to listen.

Both sides managed to introduce their important themes, but Bonds' lawyers clearly had the initiative and scored heavily.

It's only the voir dire, the first step in the trial, but it may be an indication of things to come.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.