By Dan Levine
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Several U.S. appeals court judges appeared skeptical on Thursday about the Department of Justice's attempt to preserve a criminal conviction against baseball home run king Barry Bonds that resulted from a steroids probe.
The case involves testimony Bonds gave to a grand jury in 2003 about whether he used steroids to help him bash more long balls. Last year, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco affirmed a conviction against him for obstruction of justice.
However, the full 9th Circuit voted to rehear the case. At a hearing on Thursday in San Francisco, more than half of the judges on the 11-member panel peppered the government with questions about whether Bonds's testimony actually amounted to a crime.
"I find your reading of the statute absolutely alarming," Judge William Fletcher said.
In 2003, Bonds told grand jurors about his childhood when asked whether his former trainer, Greg Anderson, had given him self-injectable substances.
Bonds had been testifying under a grant of immunity, and denied knowingly using steroids or any performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) provided by the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, known as BALCO, or by Anderson.
After talking about his friendship with the trainer, Bonds, the son of former baseball star Bobby Bonds, had testified: "I was a celebrity child, not just in baseball by my own instincts. I became a celebrity child with a famous father. I just don't get into other people's business because of my father's situation."
The slugger was convicted on one obstruction charge in April 2011, and the jury deadlocked on three perjury counts. His sentence of two years of probation and 30 days of home confinement was put on hold pending the appeal of his conviction.
In court on Thursday, Judge Susan Graber said Bonds eventually answered truthfully at the grand jury. "I don't see how there's sufficient evidence" for an obstruction conviction, she said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Merry Jean Chan said what matters for obstruction of justice is "corrupt intent," and Bonds consistently evaded questions while testifying.
"That is common behavior in civil litigation," said Fletcher, adding: "Maybe all of the bar is in big trouble."
After seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bonds played for the San Francisco Giants from 1993 until he retired in 2007 as Major League Baseball's career home run leader with 762. He also holds the single-season record with 73 homers in 2001.
But suspicions over PEDs tarnished his legacy, and he has not been admitted into the sport's Hall of Fame. Bonds and pitching great Roger Clemens are the most prominent players to have been tried in connection with baseball's so-called Steroid Era.
Bonds had testified that he received flaxseed oil, creams, vitamins and protein shakes from Anderson. A ruling could come at any time.
The case in the 9th Circuit is United States of America vs. Barry Lamar Bonds, 11-10669.
(Reporting by Dan Levine, editing by G Crosse)