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Federal appeals court weighs overturning Barry Bonds' conviction

SAN FRANCISCO —A federal appeals court wrestled Wednesday with whether to overturn slugger Barry Bonds' felony conviction for obstruction of justice.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals weighed whether Bonds broke the law by being evasive in a 52-word answer he gave a federal grand jury in 2003. The grand jury was investigating illegal distribution of performance-enhancing drugs.

Bonds was asked in the grand jury session whether his personal trainer had ever given him a substance that required a syringe to inject. In his response, Bonds rambled on about his childhood and his friendship with the trainer before finally telling the grand jury that he had not received an injectable substance.

The grand jury eventually indicted Bonds, and he was tried in 2011 on three counts of perjury and one count of obstruction. The trial jury convicted him of obstruction of justice, based on that meandering answer, but it deadlocked on the perjury charges.

How the three-judge panel was leaning after Wednesday's hearing was nearly as difficult to parse as Bonds' answer. Judge Michael Daly Hawkins appeared troubled by the fact that Bonds eventually answered the grand jury query: "Can a grand jury witness obstruct justice by giving a series of evasive answers and then giving a direct answer that is not evasive?" Hawkins asked.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Merry Jean Chan, however, said Bond's rambling response was intended to deceive. She argued that the obstruction conviction was not limited to those 52 words but reflected evasion throughout Bonds' testimony.

Hawkins then questioned why prosecutors, if they thought Bonds was being evasive, did not go before a judge to ask that Bonds be ordered to answer the grand jury's questions.

Dennis Riordan, an attorney for Bonds, told the court that the grand jury was not troubled by the 52-word passage that led to the trial jury's conviction years later.

"There is one thing we know for sure," Riordan said. "This grand jury did not consider those 52 words were criminal activity.... That is a dagger in the heart of this conviction."

Chan countered that Bonds' testimony was "littered with multiple examples" of misleading testimony.

Bonds' conviction came at the end of a 12-day trial. He was sentenced to two years probation, 250 hours of community service, a $4,000 fine and a month of monitored home confinement, all of which have been put on hold pending his appeal.

The 9th Circuit panel, which included Judges Mary Schroeder and Mary Murguia, did not indicate when it might rule.

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