Roger Clemens trial: Jurors come with questions, and get to ask them

May 14, 2012

Jurors wondered whether key evidence might have been planted and if a former drug dealer regretted having “destroyed people’s lives.” And at least one wanted more testimony about a heated discussion that wasn’t fully explored in court.

Those are the types of questions that might pop into the head of a juror during any criminal trial. And that is usually where those questions remain, locked away until jurors are finally permitted to discuss the case during their deliberations.

But in the perjury prosecution of Roger Clemens, jurors have been asking those very questions in court — providing a rare and real-time window into the thought process of the 15 District residents sitting in judgment of one of baseball’s biggest legends. The questions, reviewed by the presiding federal judge before being posed to witnesses, have revealed that at least some jurors seem skeptical of the prosecution and want to know more about off-limits testimony.

The federal judge, Reggie B. Walton, has long advocated engaging jurors more directly in trials by letting them ask questions, and he has told fellow judges that the practice ensures jurors are attentive and properly understand key testimony.

Walton, who has lectured on the topic at the National Judicial College, permitted such questions during another big trial — that of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby in 2007, a decision that was later hailed as a “terrific idea” by the case’s initially doubtful prosecutor.

In federal court, judges have the authority to allow jurors to query witnesses, though the practice remains uncommon. In recent years, the procedure has gained traction in academic circles and has been occurring with more frequency in state courts, legal experts say.

“The old view of jurors is that they are blank slates,” said Shari Seidman Diamond, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law. “But they are decision-makers, trying to figure out what is going on. They are trying things out. Questions help them process. This has all kinds of benefits.”

In the Clemens trial, the questioning has worked this way:

After each witness has finished testifying, Walton asks the jury if it has any questions. The 12 jurors and three alternates — one juror has already been excused, for sleeping — represent a broad cross-section of District residents. Among them are a Giant food clerk, a retired political science professor, a former ANC commissioner, a WMATA security officer and a Treasury Department official.

Sometimes jurors submit questions on note cards, sometimes they don’t. Walton then discusses the questions with prosecutors and defense lawyers during a private discussion at the bench, where either side can object to the query. Walton does not pose a question if he feels it is not legally permissible.

This account is based on transcripts of those private bench conferences:

So far, the jurors’ questions indicate that some seem uneasy with aspects of the government’s case. After federal agent Jeff Novitzky testified two weeks ago, for example, a juror asked about the authenticity of evidence that Clemens’s former strength coach, Brian McNamee, turned over to authorities in 2008. The strength coach claims to have injected Clemens with steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) and saved syringes and cotton balls in a crumpled beer can. Prosecutors say scientists have linked Clemens’s DNA and steroids to one syringe found in the can.

“Could this evidence be planted evidence?” one juror wanted to know.

“McNamee had access to [Clemens’s] blood, plus using cotton balls with tissues to wipe it clean, correct?” the juror continued.

“He also had access to needles, is that correct?”

“Is this evidence really conclusive?”

After reading the questions to prosecutors and defense lawyers, Walton said “that’s for them to decide,” meaning the jurors.

“I am not sure any of those questions are appropriate for this particular witness,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Durham.

Walton sided with Durham and did not ask the questions.

Jurors also wanted to hear more from Andy Pettitte, a former teammate and close friend of Clemens’s who had been considered a key prosecution witness. The left-handed pitcher, who is making a comeback this season after having retired, told jurors that Clemens confided in him during a workout in 1999 or 2000 that he had taken HGH. But on cross-examination, he agreed with a defense attorney that there was a “fifty-fifty” chance he had misheard what Clemens had told him.

During questioning by a prosecutor, Pettitte briefly mentioned that he approached McNamee after Clemens’s revelation and the strength coach got upset. A prosecutor quickly stopped Pettitte from going any further because such testimony would violate hearsay rules.

A juror clearly picked up on the exchange and wanted to know, “When you talked with McNamee about HGH, he got upset. Can you speak about that incident?”

Walton did not ask the question, telling attorneys that he did not “understand the rationale how somehow McNamee’s reaction to what Pettitte tells him helps the jury.”

McNamee took the stand on Monday, and jurors could get the chance to ask the star prosecution witness questions by as early as Tuesday or Wednesday.

Last week, jurors sought clarity from the trial’s most colorful witness, Kirk Radomski, a former steroid supplier who testified in a thick Bronx accent that he sold the drugs to many ballplayers and to McNamee. Jurors wanted to know about a torn address label, among other matters.

In 2008, three years after federal agents raided his home, Radomski found several mailing slips and photographs in an envelope under a television in his bedroom that had been missed in the original search. One of those slips, which was torn and did not include tracking numbers, was addressed to “B. McNamee” at Clemens’ home in the Houston area. Radomski testified that the label belonged to a package of HGH and needles that he sent to McNamee.

A juror wanted to ask Radomski a follow-up question about how he had discovered the labels. And another wanted to know if Radomski had turned over other such slips to authorities in recent years. Walton chose to pose both queries to the former dealer.

Other jurors wanted to know if it was “common for strength and conditioning coaches to deliver steroids or HGH to athletes,” whether Radomski had discussed the case with prosecutors during a recess and how he felt about having “destroyed people’s lives by your actions.”

And, finally, a juror wanted to ask Radomski if he and McNamee had ever discussed Clemens. Michael Attanasio, one of Clemens’s attorneys, told Walton that he thought he had already asked that very question.

“I thought he said no,” Walton said.

“He did.”

“That’s why questions are good,” Walton said, “because sometimes jurors don’t hear it.”

News researcher Lucy Schakleford contributed to this report.

Ann covers legal affairs in the District and Maryland for the Washington Post. Ann previously covered state government and politics in California, New Hampshire and Maryland. She joined the Post in 2005.
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