Debbie Clemens looks tense. She’s out of her element in Courtroom 16, watching her husband stand trial in U.S. District Court on federal perjury charges. Though she knows, like all baseball wives, how hard it is to simply watch someone you love engaged in something important, she’s now facing a new kind of burden. She has to sit poised in the gallery, stoic against the investigative glare of journalists, and also seem approachable and friendly to the crowd (she even embraces a family of six who come to court late with cameras and tourist maps asking “where’s the best seat to see Roger?”) When prosecutor Steve Durham stands to speak, Debbie glares at him with maternal rage.
Durham is gearing up to fight. He doesn’t plan to introduce the audio file of Roger Clemens’ 2008 testimony before Congress. Instead, he wants to show the jury a transcript of that testimony, a black-and-white, bottom-line document proving that Clemens lied under oath about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. Clemens’ lawyer Rusty Hardin is incensed. He expected the audio file to be introduced, and he relied on it. If the jury can’t hear the defendant’s voice — the inflections and the emphases — when he made his statements, then how can they be expected to potentially “throw that man into the federal penitentiary?”
Judge Reggie Walton considers this argument. “The audio file might actually hurt you” he tells Hardin, who replies that he’s willing to take that chance. “But I am sympathetic to your cause.” Walton’s reported sympathies toward Clemens drew some controversy back in February, leading to media suggestions that he might actually be removed from the case. He also doesn’t seem to know much about the topics at hand. At one point, he asks, “can’t you get what amounts to human growth hormone at a special food store?” FBI agent John Longmire, who sits at Durham’s prosecution table, offers a bewildered reply: “The answer to that is absolutely not.”
Walton doesn’t like wasting time or money. He implores the principals in court to hurry back from breaks so as to not “waste your tax money, or my tax money.” He often points out how much it costs to try a case like USA vs. Clemens, and ultimately sets aside the audio-file issue on the grounds that it’s too expensive a problem and that it’s wasting important time. “If you haven’t noticed,” he tells the bickering lawyers on both sides, “this is a country going broke.”
Even without knowing the numbers — the untold millions this trial will cost taxpayers — many Americans sense that there’s something wrong here, that this might all be a witchhunt, an issue better-suited for Cooperstown voters than a federal jury. When the audio-file debate ends and jury-selection begins, and the huddled masses of potential jurors file into the courtroom, Judge Walton again acknowledges the times we live in — cracking jokes about the Powerball jackpot.
Hardin gets on their side, as well, asking if they can understand his Texas accent. It’s almost hard to believe that Rusty Hardin exists, so true is he to a certain Archetype, with his southern movie-lawyer aphorisms and dazzling yellow ties. We find ourselves, during the jury-selection ordeal, waiting for Durham and Longmire to finish up so we can get back to Rusty. He’s the star of the show, and he brings out a likable side to Clemens.
On Rusty’s right-hand side, there’s Roger — smiling at old women in the crowd, stooping to pick up litter in the gallery and throwing it away for the female clerk. Here we see in Clemens a fatherless son raised by Texas women. An oft-injured pretty boy pitcher — that most performative of positions — with frost-tipped gelled hair and a face full of emotion. Every now and then it seems Clemens is actually enjoying himself in the courtroom.
Not so for Michael Attanasio, the tight-lipped Princeton grad and former prosecutor who serves as Clemens’ No. 2 attorney. Rarely allowed to speak thus far in court, Attanasio sits coldly on the sidelines, rifling through manila folders. When Roger looks over at Attanasio, his grin drops and he grows serious, like a kid straightening up in church. Here he recalls the brooding superstar who refused to sign autographs, who pissed off his teammates and battled with tough Red Sox fans in Boston, who threw a broken bat at Mike Piazza in New York.
Therein lies the challenge of this jury selection, and, in effect, in Clemens receiving a fair trial. While a hit TV show lasts five years, a great ballplayer’s career lasts twenty. Clemens’ pop-cultural impact is cross-generational. We all have our own perceptions, fair or otherwise, that we’ve applied to him. We have memories stretching from the mid-Eighties to the 2010’s, from the triumphant — a 20-strikeout game at Fenway Park — to the sensationalistic — a 10-year extramarital affair with country singer Mindy McCready.
“A lot of these people are big celebrities!” shouts a potential juror hearing the list of defense witnesses. Her comment draws laughter from Roger Clemens, but concerned silence from Debbie — aware that this person may soon wield the power to send the father of her children to prison for twenty-one months.
The prosecution wants jurors to think of Roger Clemens as a big celebrity. A big celebrity who went to a glitzy party at fellow celebrity Jose Canseco’s Florida house on June 9, 1998. It was there, trainer Brian McNamee testified, that Clemens spent the night poolside, talking with Canseco about banned substances. It was there that he allegedly became obsessed with anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, where he first joined the wink-wink underground of big celebrities getting away with performance-enhancing crimes. Clemens told Congress that he did not attend the party. Later, he and Hardin told the press that maybe he did attend, after all. Maybe he did talk to Canseco, and maybe the talk turned to steroids.
But maybe the steroids weren’t for him.
Rusty pauses and directs the crowd’s attention to Debbie. “You see the blonde lady right there? That’s Roger’s wife, and she’s going to testifty.” He makes her stand, and wave, and say hello to everyone. It’s a telling move. See, Rusty is not just a star, but a starmaker. He understands the value of a big witness.
In a few weeks, Debbie Clemens will testify that she used human growth hormone, at McNamee’s insistence, to improve her physique for a Sports Illustrated photo shoot in 2003. She will refute McNamee’s claim that he injected her with Roger’s guidance. Having been present with Roger in Florida in June 1998, she may also remove him from the scene of Canseco’s party. In portraying herself as a steroid user in the Clemens household — Roger told Congress outright that he had never used steroids, but toed the line on his contact with or his purchasing of the drugs — she will cast reasonable doubt all over the prosecution’s case.
In the courtroom, this will land a dramatic blow. Debbie Clemens is an immensely likable woman — weathered by a chaotic marriage, but strong, and fiercely intelligent. If a trial lawyer of Hardin’s calibre is also a playwright, attuned to the subtle mechanisms of personality and dramatic structure, then in Debbie Clemens he has found his starlet.
That Hardin can argue so passionately to use that audio file speaks to his courtroom brilliance. It seems like a minor issue to prosecutor Durham and Judge Walton — men who think in black-and-white terms. But to Rusty it seems self-evident: of course the jury should hear Roger’s voice, how he enunciated those words, the emotion in his lines. A courtroom is just a theater with a clock on the wall, isn’t it?
During a recess, Rusty bolts, smiling and waving, into a cloud of reporters, while the Clemenses duck into a side hallway near the bathrooms to talk. They gaze at each other with genuine, overwhelmed affection — the ballplayer and the baseball wife, Roger and Debbie. No matter all the ways he’s done her wrong, he knows that if he sticks with her, in more ways than one, it’s all going to be okay.