Former major league pitcher Roger Clemens smiles while leaving federal… (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Roger Clemens, known as "The Rocket" for the fastball that dominated major league batters, won his most critical contest yet Monday when jurors found him not guilty of lying to Congress about steroid use.
For nearly five years, Clemens steadfastly had denied using steroids or human growth hormone, but this time a jury believed him, or at least was unconvinced by the testimony of his former trainer Brian McNamee that he had regularly injected drugs into Clemens' buttocks.
Rusty Hardin, Clemens' lead attorney, portrayed the case as a witch hunt, arguing prosecutors used McNamee as a stooge, willing to say what they wanted to hear.
"It got to where people thought arrogance was a man saying I didn't do it," Hardin told reporters after the verdict. "Hopefully, we can get back to a point where when a man says he didn't do it, let's at least start out giving him the benefit of the doubt."
Clemens, known as an intimidating tough guy on the mound, broke down in tears when addressing reporters after the verdict.
Referring to his 24 seasons in baseball, Clemens wiped his eyes before continuing. "I put a lot of work into that career," he said. "I appreciate my teammates who came in and all the emails and phone calls from my teammates."
Clemens won seven Cy Young Awards. He had 4,672 strikeouts, the third-most for any pitcher, and a career 3.12 earned-run average.
Prosecutors argued Clemens had spun a complicated web of lies to protect his reputation and preserve a shot at being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but the case began to get away from them early when Clemens' former teammate Andy Pettitte backpedaled on key evidence.
Under cross-examination, Pettitte said his memory of a 1999 or 2000 conversation with Clemens when he thought he said he used HGH was only 50-50.
"It's very difficult as a prosecutor to recover when one of your star witnesses essentially retracts his testimony," said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey now in private practice with the law firm of McCarter and English.
With Pettitte essentially neutralized, the case came down to Clemens' word against McNamee's. McNamee provided medical waste he said proved he had injected Clemens with steroids in 2001, but although cotton balls in the waste were shown to contain traces of Clemens' DNA, blood on a needle McNamee also kept was not a definitive match to the pitcher.
And Clemens' lawyers launched an all-out attack on McNamee's credibility, painting him as a serial liar during four days of cross-examination and later calling his estranged wife to testify against him.
The loss of the case is particularly embarrassing to prosecutors after they caused the first trial to collapse last summer when they showed inadmissible evidence to the jury. After that mishap, Clemens' lawyers sought to have the case thrown out, but prosecutors pressed ahead with a retrial.
Marc Mukasey, a former federal prosecutor in New York now at Bracewell & Giuliani, said the verdict could change the government's approach to similar cases.
"I think the Justice Department has been and always will be vigilant about steroid trafficking," Mukasey said. "I think the Justice Department will also be vigilant about perjury cases. But where perjury meets steroids, they might think twice in the future."
Prosecutors did not address reporters after the trial ended, but the United States attorney's office issued a statement. "The jury has spoken in this matter and we thank them for their service," it read. "We respect the judicial process and the jury's verdict."
The jurors' speed in reaching a conclusion was in stark contrast to the rest of the trial, which progressed at an interminable pace, and was marked by regular squabbles among the lawyers at the judge's bench.
Apparently not captivated by the evidence, two jurors nodded off and were dismissed. Even Judge Reggie Walton began to worry the trial might interfere with his summer plans.
Despite its length, the trial came down to Clemens' former trainer's claims he injected Clemens with steroids and HGH from 1998 to 2001.
The build-up to the case began 41/2 years ago, when Clemens was named in the congressional Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, to which McNamee provided evidence. Clemens vigorously denied the claim in public and then at a congressional hearing in 2008.
Contending the denials were a lie, federal prosecutors charged the pitcher with one count of obstruction of Congress, three counts of making false statements and two of perjury in August 2010.
Jamie Goldberg in Washington contributed to this report.