With less than five weeks to go before the federal perjury trial of home run champion Barry Bonds in San Francisco, the judge presiding over the case asked both sides today whether they would consider a plea bargain.
"I've noticed how hard you're working on this case. Huge resources are being expended," U.S. District Judge Susan Illston told prosecution and defense lawyers at a status conference hearing.
"Are you interested in resolving the case short of a trial?" the judge asked. She offered to refer the case to another judge for settlement talks.
The prosecution and defense did not reject the offer but did not express any optimism about a settlement in which Bonds might plead guilty to reduced charges. Lawyers from each side said they had previously talked and made their positions clear to the other side.
"I think the government understands our position on these things," lead defense attorney Allen Ruby told the judge.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Parrella, a member of the prosecution team, said, "We have talked, but maybe we can discuss that offline."
Illston reiterated her offer to refer the case to a settlement judge and said, "In every case, it's always worth taking a fresh look at the possibility."
Bonds, 46, set the Major League Baseball single-season record with 73 home runs while playing for the San Francisco Giants in 2001 and set the career record of 762 in his last season in 2007.
He is due to go on trial in Illston's court on March 21 on four counts of lying and one count of obstructing justice in 2003 testimony before a federal grand jury that was investigating steroids distribution by the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO.
Among other charges, he is accused of lying when he said he never knowingly received steroids from his trainer, Greg Anderson, and never was injected by Anderson.
The case has been pending since he was initially indicted in 2007.
Outside of court, Ruby indicated that a plea bargain seems unlikely.
"As I've said since day one, I believe we're going to trial," he said.
But the defense attorney added, "When a judge suggests that the parties ought to talk, that needs to be accorded great respect."
Illston is due to consider an array of pending pretrial motions at a hearing on March 1.
One dispute concerns a recently announced plan by prosecutors to show the jury a series of photos of Bonds over his career, which they allege will help to show his knowledge of "the obvious and dramatic changes in his physique which he experienced once he started using anabolic steroids."
Because Anderson has refused to testify, the photos would be one of several pieces of evidence important to the prosecution in attempting to prove their perjury claims without the trainer's testimony.
Illston told prosecutors today they can't use the photos unless they add them to their previously filed exhibit list and add the names of witnesses who would authenticate the photos to their witness list.
"If these are things you want to use at the trial, you have to put them on the table," she instructed the prosecutors.
Parrella said prosecutors will file their revised witness list by a Feb. 24 deadline.
Outside the Federal Building courthouse, Ruby showed news reporters nine proposed evidentiary photos of Bonds that prosecutors gave the defense Thursday night. The photos, most of which show him in baseball uniforms, appear to have been taken between the late 1980s and 2004.
Ruby said the defense thus far has little information about exactly when, where and how the photos were taken.
"We have some questions," he said.