Sunday, July 17, 2011

Veteran prosecutors’ rookie mistake, no-nonsense judge lead to Clemens mistrial

Veteran prosecutors’ rookie mistake, no-nonsense judge lead to Clemens mistrial
By Del Quentin Wilber
July 16, 2011

The demise of the perjury trial of Roger Clemens was sown in one of the most routine moments of any prosecution: the playing of a video for jurors.

It actually was the fifth cued up that day, showing Clemens’s testimony before a House committee. While tedious, the clips were an essential part of the Justice Department’s case that the baseball legend had lied to Congress in 2008, when he told lawmakers that he had never taken performance-enhancing drugs.

Within moments of the tape’s rolling, the trial was over, and the prosecutors sat slumped and dejected in their chairs.

A judge had declared a mistrial, ruling that the tape included evidence he had barred from the jury.

The dramatic decision left legal observers wondering how such a high-profile prosecution could end so abruptly, on just the second day of testimony. A review of transcripts and interviews with people knowledgeable about what happened reveals that federal prosecutors did not intentionally introduce barred evidence to the jury. Despite years of experience, two well-respected prosecutors had made a basic mistake and not carefully reviewed the videos they planned to show jurors.

Their error was intensified because it occurred in front of a by-the-book judge who noticed it before defense lawyers could even raise an objection.

“Because of the prosecutors’ excellent reputations, you have to believe it’s a mistake, just a mistake,” said Tom Zeno, a former colleague of the two government lawyers. “What compounds the error here,” he added, “is that the judge runs a very tight ship and had high expectations of the prosecutors.”

The judge in the case is Reggie B. Walton, who will be weighing legal arguments in coming weeks to determine whether to grant prosecutors a retrial. Last week, the judge gave no hint about how he might rule.

First appointed to the D.C. Superior Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Walton was tapped for the federal bench in 2001 by President George W. Bush. Since then, he has earned a reputation for being able to manage complex and high-profile trials.

In 2007, he oversaw the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was convicted of lying about his role in the leak of an undercover CIA officer's identity. He sentenced Libby to 2 ½ years in prison — a sentence later commuted by Bush.

A former fullback on his college football team, he also isn’t afraid to take action. In 2005, he broke up an assault in Chevy Chase Circle by tackling the assailant...

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