Wednesday, December 26, 2007
The first issue raised by the government in the prosecution of Barry Bonds for perjury and obstruction of justice involves the potential -- or perhaps even actual -- conflict of interest his two new attorneys may have because of their prior work representing witnesses in the Balco (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) steroids investigation. The much-heralded lawyers are Alan Ruby and Christine Arguedas, and both were hired right before Bonds' arraignment on December 7. Ruby earlier represented Dr. Arthur Ting, Bonds' personal physician, for about a month, and Dr. Ting was a witness before the grand jury that investigated Bonds for perjury. Arguedas represented, among others, former track star Tim Montgomery and three former members of the Oakland Raiders.
In a filing raising the potential conflicts of interest (available below), prosecutors note that they are unlikely to call Montgomery and the three football players, probably because they had nothing to do with Bonds and could not provide any valuable testimony. I doubt there is even a colorable claim of a conflict of interest involving Arguedas based on her representation of witnesses with no connection to her current client who are not going to tesify. Dr. Ting, however, is another matter as the government motion notes that he is likely to be a witness at trial. Indeed, he could well be a crucial witness in establishing that Bonds use steroids during the periods that he denied their use before the grand jury. Media reports indicate that Dr. Ting accompanied Bonds to Balco, and participated in a private drug test of Bonds in 2000. The filing redacts a portion of a paragraph relating to Dr. Ting, most likely because it refers to his grand jury testimony, which remains secret under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e). Any redaction draws attention, of course, and it is intriguing to specualate about what he might say at trial, and whether he will try to defend Bonds.
Ruby only represented Dr. Ting for a short time, so the potential conflict is not clear. One common basis for claiming that defense counsel cannot represent a current defendant because of prior representation of a government witness is that the lawyer will not be able to fully cross-examine the witness due to the confidentiality rules. For example, if the prior client made a statement to the lawyer and then makes a different assertion at trial, the lawyer would not be able to use that earlier statement to undermine the former client's credibility because of the protections afforded to attorney-client communications. The lawyer's obligations to the two clients would come into conflict because of the need to protect one at the expense of the other getting the best possible defense, and so might result in the lawyer providing ineffective assistance to the current client, the defendant. If Ruby has a conflict of interest because of what he might have learned from Dr. Ting during the earlier representation, then his presence on the case could result in the reversal of any conviction due to a Sixth Amendment violation due from claimed ineffective assistance of counsel.
The government's filing notes that prosecutors will accept a waiver from Bonds of the possible conflicts, which triggered his brief appearance before U.S. District Judge Susan Illston on December 21. At this point, there has not been a motion to remove either Ruby or Arguedas, and prosecutors are raising the conflict at this point to avoid being whipsawed if there is an actual conflict of interest. One of the dictionary definitions of "whipsaw" is "to defeat or best in two ways at once." The issue prosecutors are raising is that they do not want to lose a conviction because of a problem that the defense lawyer has with his/her client. If the case goes to trial with conflicted counsel and the jury returns a "not guilty" verdict, then there is no harm from the conflict. If the jury convicts, then a defendant can claim that the result is tainted due to defense counsel's conflict, a difficult argument to win but one that results in overturning the verdict if an actual conflict is found that affected counsel's performance at trial. Hence the whipsaw, because the defendant can win either way with a conflicted lawyer, at least in the government's eyes, because prosecutors did not do anything wrong.
The waiver is one form of protection for the case, although it does not provide an absolute shield against a defendant raising the issue on appeal. By requiring Bonds to appear in court to answer questions, Judge Illston is taking steps to avoid having the case affected by the potential conflict. She has ordered Bonds and his attorneys to make a submission by January 4, 2008, waiving the conflict to establish a record that it is both knowing and voluntary. Because Dr. Ting is likely to be a witness, he too must agree to waive any confidentiality or conflict of interest claim he might have against Ruby. While the current client is often happy to waive the conflict, the former client has an interest that must be protected.
If Dr. Ting were to refuse to waive, then the issue becomes much more complicated and I would expect Judge Illston to seriously consider removing Ruby as a member of Bonds' legal defense team. Of course, that is a decision also fraught with danger, because the recent Supreme Court decision in United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez held that improper denial of a defendant's right to counsel of choice results in an automatic reversal of a conviction. While I expect the court to accept Bonds' waiver, assuming Dr. Ting also waives the protections of the confidentiality rule, this is an issue that can rear its ugly head at any point in time. (ph)