Thursday, January 24, 2008
Home run king Barry Bonds moved to dismiss the perjury and obstruction of justice indictment (brief available below), asserting that the charges are duplicitous -- one of my all-time favorite legal arguments -- and that the questions posed were so ambiguous that his answers were not false as a matter of law. A count of an indictment is duplicitous when it charges two crimes in a single charge, which is to be distinguished from multiplicity, which is charging the same crime in two different charges. The more common duplicity claim involves two separate crimes charged in one count, but here the claim is that there are different responses that may be untruthful, so that the government has too many potential instances of perjury in each count.
The four perjury counts contain a number of questions and answers, so it is difficult to identify any one with particularity that is perjurious. The problem posed by a duplicitous charge is that there is no way for a jury to convict on one offense and acquit on another offense contained in the same count. Similarly, because the jurors have two crimes to consider in a single count, they may convict without reaching a unanimous agreement on either. For example, if some jurors believe one response by Bonds was untruthful while others believed a second response in the same count was a lie, then they could all agree that he committed perjury but not based on the same answers. The problem a defendant faces when there is duplicity in the charges is that it's not clear which of the statements the prosecution will focus on, and indeed the government could shift its theory in response to the defense.
While Bonds raises a valid point about the number of questions and answers in each count, in the government's defense I suspect prosecutors wanted to provide the context for his answers, many of which are fairly clear denials (i,e. "no" in some instances). Moreover, even if the district court found that the perjury counts were duplicitous, the remedy is usually not dismissal but an order to the government to seek a superseding indictment from the grand jury that cleans up the charges or perhaps a bill of particulars to identify one specific answer in each count that it will prove as perjury. It may be that the government will seek more charges by breaking up the counts, so that rather than facing four counts of perjury, Bonds will face eight or twelve. The motion also attacks the obstruction charge on essentially the same ground.
Bonds' second argument goes to the heart of a perjury charge -- the ambiguity in the questions means that he did not answer the questions untruthfully, or at least did not know his answers were false. The key perjury case is Bronston v. United States, 409 U.S. 352 (1973), in which the Supreme Court held that "the perjury statute is not to be loosely construed, nor the statute invoked simply because a wily witness succeeds in derailing the questioner-so long as the witness speaks the literal truth. The burden is on the questioner to pin the witness down to the specific object to the questioner's inquiry." If the questions are ambiguous and the prosecutor does not ask a clear question or seek to clarify the answer, then the defendant cannot be convicted for the responses. Thus, compound questions, and questions using broad terms or imprecise dates, can open the door to a "not guilty" verdict. The problem for Bonds is that the ambiguity defense is usually one left to the jury, and it is the rare case in which a court decides as a matter of law that the questions were so defective that no rational jury could find the answer was untruthful. While this gives us a preview of where the defense is headed at trial, it is unlikely to succeed at this stage of the proceedings.
As often happens when a sports figure is involved in a case, the temptation is to toss in an analogy (or perhaps a simile) to the athlete's sport is just too hard to resist, even if it only causes the reader to groan. In the brief, the attorneys write with regard to the duplicity in the indictment, "Even Barry Bonds cannot be expected to make contact with a fastball, slider, and knuckler thrown him simultaneously." Please, no one this side of Tim Wakefield throws a knuckle ball any more, and the best sucker pitch in baseball is the splitter. Let's hope the government does not respond by likening the defense filing to the typical defensive shift put on when Bonds comes to bat. (ph)