By PAUL ELIAS
The Associated Press
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 12:14 PM
SAN FRANCISCO -- Barry Bonds' lawyers and federal prosecutors bickered at length during a recent hearing about the admissibility of a Playboy interview and photo spread of Kimberly Bell, the slugger's former mistress.
When the issue came up, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston looked out at a packed courtroom and sighed. She's earned a reputation as dignified and unflappable over 16 years on the bench, but at times the buildup to Bonds' perjury trial has tested even her patience.
Illston comes to the Bonds cases, which starts with jury selection on Monday, having handled an enormous variety of legal issues.
She's sentenced child pornographers to prison. She's overruled the Bush administration by barring off-road vehicles in the Mojave Desert. She's presided over a novel human rights trial in which Nigerian villagers were demanding billions from Chevron Corp. after accusing it of backing the deadly military putdown of a protest against the oil giant. And she's in charge of a complex class-action lawsuit alleging price fixing among companies that manufacture television screens and computer monitors.
Illston has kept a matter-of-fact demeanor through it all. But when prosecutors announced in 2009, as the Bonds trial neared, that they were appealing an important ruling of hers barring critical evidence, the judge didn't hide her anger. She lectured the government lawyers about how disruptive and expensive their appeal was to a court that was fully geared up to accommodate a media circus.
Yet in the first hearing after the prosecutors lost that appeal, Illston neither gloated nor mentioned her vindication. It was business as usual again for a case that has dragged on since Bonds' indictment in 2007 - and really since 2003, when the first of the sports Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) doping cases were assigned to her courtroom.
Since the new year began, the Bonds case has generated a blizzard of legal motions in the run up to Monday's trial. The slugger is accused of making false statements to a grand jury and obstructing justice by saying that he never knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs, and Illston has been asked to rule on legal issues small and large, the Playboy dispute among them.
"I don't really care to see the photograph," Illston deadpanned at the time. But she ruled that jurors could read the Playboy article.
It was, legal observers said, the latest example of Illston's ability to cut to the nub of legal disagreements with straightforward and sensible rulings. Prosecutors wanted both items introduced and Bonds lawyers wanted neither.
Illston split the dispute down the middle.
Jurors could use the Playboy interview to help determine the credibility of the former mistress, who will testify that Bonds often flew into steroid-induced rages during their relationship. The photographs, the judge decided, were prurient.
In recent weeks, she's decided: Bell can testify that Bonds' testicles shrank during their relationship (a sign of steroid use) and longtime clubhouse attendant Mike Murphy can discuss Bonds' hat size growing (another sign) and other arcane issues rarely heard in a federal court.
The 62-year-old Illston presided over nearly a dozen criminal cases, two trials and countless headline-making developments spawned by the BALCO saga. But this one is something of a milestone. The Bonds case is the most famous - and last one - connected to BALCO.
Since his indictment in 2007, Illston has tried to treat Bonds just like the other defendants who parade in front of her daily, even if he is one of the nation's best-known sports figures, the holder of the all-time home-run record (762) and the single-season mark (73).
In December 2007, for instance, she calmly read Bonds his rights and then asked him to enter his plea to perjury charges in the same methodical manner she uses for accused child pornographers and alleged undocumented workers.
She made no mention and betrayed no knowledge of the helicopters hovering over the courthouse and dozens of reporters and photographs jostling for position with hundreds of curious onlookers waiting for Bonds' exit that day.
Legal observers expect the same demeanor on Monday.
"This not a judge who covets the publicity of the high-profile cases," said defense attorney William Keane, who represented the former track coach Trevor Graham before Illston. "She will do as good a job as any judge I know to call things the way she see them, without any consideration for the publicity and attention the case is receiving."
Keane's client was convicted after a 2008 trial of making a false statement to BALCO investigators, and Illston sentenced Graham to one year of house arrest. Prosecutors had asked that Graham be sent to prison for 10 months.
Illston, a mother of two sons, cut her legal teeth at the plaintiffs firm founded by major Democratic fundraiser Joe Cotchett, first as a clerk, then as an entry-level attorney after graduation Stanford Law School in 1973. Three years later she was promoted to partner and was in charge of the firm when President Clinton appointed her to the bench in 1995.
"It was clear to me then as it is today that the woman is not only very bright, but she is pragmatic and very astute," said Cotchett, who said one of the reasons he hired her in 1973 was because of the "Get out of Vietnam" sticker on her car.
"She's the very epitome of prepared," said Cotchett, who remains close to the judge. "She reads everything."
Illston declined to comment, which Cotchett and others said is in keeping with her low-profile persona.
Cotchett said the judge is an "avid" hiker and reads almost exclusively nonfiction books during her free time.
"There's enough fiction in her courtroom," he said.