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Roger Clemens's casual day in court

By Dana Milbank
Monday, August 30, 2010; 11:24 PM

Roger Clemens, entering his not-guilty plea in federal court Monday, could not have projected more indifference to the proceedings if he had entered the courtroom with a golf bag slung over his shoulder.

Sporting chin stubble, blond frosting in his hair and his beach-party best (dark blazer, tan gabardines and loafers), the former baseball great first stopped by the courthouse cafeteria, where he talked sports with his lawyers over sandwiches, pausing to sign an autograph or two requested by court workers. Clemens took off his jacket and strolled the hallways in shirt sleeves and an artsy black tie with earth-tone splotches. Total strangers got an overly enthusiastic "How ya doin?" from the Rocket, who faces charges that he lied to Congress about his steroid use.

In Judge Reggie Walton's courtroom, he uttered but four words - "Not guilty, Your Honor" - with a smile and a booming Texas accent, then idly swiveled his desk chair left and right while the lawyers made their arguments.

He then hurried downstairs to his waiting Cadillac Escalade, popped his sunglasses on and earphones in, and grinned for the cameras. He was on his way to the airport and a private flight that would take him to a golf tournament in South Carolina. If all went well, he could still make a 4:30 tee time.

You don't win the Cy Young Award seven times without a game plan, and for his legal proceedings, too, Clemens seems to have one: determined nonchalance. As courtroom strategies go, it just might be a winner.

Yes, there's quite a bit of damning evidence that he repeatedly lied about his steroid use in testimony before a House committee, but so what? If the Justice Department wishes to prosecute everybody who makes "false and misleading statements" to Congress, it might start by handcuffing lawmakers at the end of each debate.

Certainly, Clemens was contemptuous and disdainful of the lawmakers, but polls indicate he is joined in that sentiment by 75 percent of his countrymen. If the jury comes to regard the case as a competition between the greatest pitcher of his generation and the most unpopular Congress in generations, the Rocket will add another one to the win column.

Charges of lying to Congress are difficult to prove, which helps to explain why there have been only a few prosecutions for the crime in recent decades. And Clemens, with a career record of 354-184, is no easy opponent.

Still, the Justice Department fielded a strong team. One of its lawyers is Daniel Butler, who successfully prosecuted the D.C. Madam. Court officials selected the large ceremonial courtroom for the arraignment, and a court spokesman appeared before the proceedings to brief reporters on the statues of great lawgivers adorning the wall behind the judge: Hammurabi, Moses, Solon and Justinian - the last holding a globe and a long scroll (or was it a baseball and bat?). Hammurabi stared sternly down at the hulking figure in the defendant's seat.

The clerk read out the case, "United States of America versus William Clemens, a.k.a. Roger Clemens" - as if the defendant were hiding behind a nefarious alias.

But Clemens and his legal team were not to be shaken from their nonchalance. They had come to the courthouse hours early so Clemens could get the processing (the fingerprinting, mug shots and other indignities inflicted on defendants) out of the way so that it didn't interfere with his golf.

His lead attorney, Rusty Hardin, wore a light linen suit and explained why the trial, originally scheduled for November, would have to wait until next spring - because of "a good deal of scientific evidence that needs to be tested." Hardin also got the judge to postpone a Thanksgiving-week hearing, explaining that the change would win "brownie points" with those who had vacations scheduled. Hardin also informed the judge that he would be making several motions in support of his pitcher-client.

The schedule was set: pretrial motions (a sort of legal spring training) on March 8, and opening day on April 5.

The Rocket occupied himself by swiveling in his chair, rubbing his eyes, scratching his cheek and whispering to one of his lawyers. Hardin explained that because Clemens "does a great deal of travel," it was too much of a burden for him to make "formal" reports to the authorities in advance of his moves. The prosecution countered that, to reduce the risk of flight, "we would ask him to surrender his passport."

The judge ruled that the Rocket could keep his passport. "He's well known enough," Walton reasoned, "that if he wants to depart the country, we'll know about it."

That's a safe bet. As Clemens left the courtroom, marshals pushed back scores of photographers and journalists and shouted, "No interviews." Inside and outside the courthouse, well-wishers called out encouragement to the defendant and his team: "I'm rooting for you, Mr. Clemens! . . . I love you! . . .Get him free, Rusty! . . . You're my hero!"

It was the sort of reception the lawmakers he allegedly lied to will never receive.

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