Clemens headed for a showdown

Evidence may include syringes with steroids

By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / August 21, 2010

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With reporters scrambling to interview Red Sox players in 2003 about baseball’s escalating steroid crisis, pitcher John Burkett cued up an apt tune on the sound system in the clubhouse at Toronto’s SkyDome: Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done.’’

Burkett, whose Sox would face Roger Clemens and the Yankees that October for the American League championship, had no way of knowing that five years earlier a Blue Jays trainer had allegedly visited Clemens’s SkyDome apartment numerous times to inject the former Sox star with illegal anabolic steroids.

Nor could Burkett have known that the trainer, Brian McNamee, had saved the syringes he allegedly used to shoot illegal performance enhancers into Clemens more than a dozen times in 1998, 2000, and 2001.

Soon, those needles could do more damage to Clemens than any slugger the Rocket faced.

Clemens, who was indicted Thursday on six counts of lying to Congress, is headed for a showdown in federal court with government lawyers who are all but certain to offer the needles as evidence against him. The prosecutors, who have reportedly matched Clemens’s DNA to the syringes, will try to exploit the evidence to show that Clemens lied to a House committee in 2008 when he denied ever ingesting illegal anabolic steroids or human growth hormone.

“Then it becomes a test of science,’’ Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz said yesterday of the needles and DNA evidence. “If there is obvious corroboration that Clemens knew what he was getting in those syringes, it could be significant. But there are a lot of angles in play here.’’

Clemens, facing up to 21 months in prison if convicted of the multiple charges, has rejected a plea offer and vowed to go to trial at the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington. The court sits midway between the White House and the Capitol, where Clemens allegedly committed the crimes.

In a surprise phone call yesterday to support the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio Telethon, Clemens declined to discuss the federal case in detail.

“All I’m going to say is that I learned a lot through what happened, and what did not happen,’’ he said. “I don’t know what else to say. We’re going to deal with it and have our day.’’

Asked if he were surprised by the indictment, Clemens said, “It wasn’t really a surprise. I got my eyes opened quite a bit.’’

As for his diminished prospects of reaching the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2013, Clemens said, “I didn’t play the game to go to the Hall of Fame . . . It’s a tremendous honor. I played the game because I was taking care of my family.’’

His case has been assigned to Judge Reggie B. Walton, who presided over the 2007 perjury trial and conviction of I. Lewis “Scooter’’ Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff. Walton sentenced Libby to 30 months in prison and a $200,000 fine.

Clemens is expected to be arraigned before Walton in the next couple of weeks. Federal law grants him the right to be tried within 70 days, but legal analysts do not expect his trial to begin for at least several months.

For Clemens, the syringes could represent a key element of the case against him. McNamee agreed to cooperate with federal investigators and former US Senator George L. Mitchell’s inquiry into baseball’s steroid epidemic after he was caught allegedly distributing illegal performance enhancers. He had stored the syringes and related paraphernalia in his basement until he turned over the material to federal agents.

Tests on the syringes determined the presence of steroids, The New York Times reported last year. The needles also contained Clemens’s DNA, according to the Washington Post.

As damaging as the purported findings may appear, prosecutors must prove that Clemens knowingly lied when he said he never used illegal performance enhancers. The seven-time Cy Young Award winner has said under oath that he believed McNamee was injecting him with vitamin B-12 and the painkiller Lidocaine.

“Perjury cannot be proved by scientific evidence,’’ Dershowitz said. “Prosecutors will have to prove that he knew he was taking steroids.’’

William Miller, a spokesman for US Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., the lead prosecutor in the case, declined to discuss the evidence or potential witnesses. Clemens’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, did not respond to an interview request.

McNamee is certain to top the government’s witness list. In sworn testimony, he told federal authorities and Mitchell that he injected Clemens four times with steroids in 1998, four to six times with steroids and human growth hormone in 2000, and four to five times with steroids in 2001. Clemens, who pitched for the Sox from 1984-96, was a member of the Blue Jays in ’98 and the Yankees in 2000 and ’01.

Clemens accused McNamee of lying and sued his former trainer for defamation, but a Texas court dismissed the case and a federal appeals court recently upheld the dismissal.

McNamee also admitted illegally injecting two of Clemens’s former teammates — Andy Pettitte and Chuck Knoblauch — with human growth hormone. Both players corroborated McNamee’s account, and Pettitte told investigators under oath that both Clemens and McNamee told him that Clemens had used HGH with McNamee’s assistance. Clemens testified that Pettitte “misremember[ed]’’ their conversation.

In any case, Pettitte is likely to find himself testifying against his long-time teammate and friend. So is another Clemens pal, Jose Canseco, a veteran steroid abuser who has become the chief whistleblower in baseball’s steroid scandal.

In his 2005 book, “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ’Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big,’’ Canseco discussed how “B-12 shots’’ became clubhouse code in the 1990s for steroid injections.

“It was the pitchers who kept the B-12 joke going,’’ Canseco wrote. “For example, I’ve never seen Roger Clemens do steroids, and he never told me that he did. But we’ve talked about what steroids could do for you, in which combinations, and I’ve heard him use the phrase ‘B-12 shot’ with respect to others.’’

Canseco, specifically citing Clemens, who won the last of his record seven Cy Young Awards with the Astros in 2004 at age 42, wrote, “One of the classic signs of steroid use is when a player’s basic performance actually improves later in his career.’’

Canseco issued a statement Thursday supporting Clemens.

“I am saddened to hear of the indictment of my friend and former teammate, Roger Clemens,’’ Canseco said. “I am not aware of any use of steroids by Roger.’’

Canseco did not appear at the 2008 hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. But he gave a lengthy deposition to House investigators before the hearing and allegedly made statements directly contradicting an account Clemens gave the committee.

Specifically, Clemens is charged with lying when he testified he was not present at Canseco’s Florida home June 9, 1998. McNamee testified that Clemens first asked McNamee to inject him with steroids after Clemens discussed performance enhancers with Canseco on that date at Canseco’s house.

Prosecutors are expected to call Canseco to testify about Clemens’s purported presence at his home.

US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, a South Boston Democrat who sat on the committee to which Clemens allegedly lied, said, “There are certainly grounds for the indictment’’ against him.

“There were some marked differences in the testimony,’’ Lynch said, “and some of those witnesses corroborated each other, such as McNamee and Pettitte.’’

The challenge now for Clemens will be to properly manage his defense strategy. Dershowitz, a longtime Clemens fan, said the pitcher ignored his published advice in 2008 to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if he were asked about steroid use by the House committee.

“I think he sometimes regards lawyers almost like a catcher giving him a signal and he waves it off,’’ Dershowitz said. “He shouldn’t have waved off my signal.’’

Dershowitz believes Clemens should refuse to testify in the federal case and should make certain his lawyers are capable of portraying witnesses such as McNamee as “sleazeballs’’ who have cut deals to save themselves from jail.

“I think he has a good shot at beating the charges,’’ Dershowitz said. “But he’s going to make a mistake if he testifies. If he testifies, he will lose.’’

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