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Ball Three

What is the Scooter Libby trial really about?

In announcing the indictment of the vice-presidential aide in October 2005, the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald attempted to make it all perfectly clear, using a baseball analogy:

If you saw a baseball game and you saw a pitcher wind up and throw a fast ball and hit a batter right smack in the head and it really, really hurt them, you’d want to know why the pitcher did that. And you’d wonder whether or not the person just reared back and decided, “I’ve got bad blood with this batter, he hit two home runs off me, I’m just going to hit him in the head as hard as I can.”

You also might wonder whether or not the pitcher just let go of the ball, or his foot slipped, and he had no idea to throw the ball anywhere near the batter’s head. And there’s a lots of shades of gray in between. You might learn that you wanted to hit the batter in the back, it hit him in the head because he moved; you might want to throw it under his chin but ended up hitting on the head.

And what you’d want to do is have as much information as you could. You’d want to know what happened in the dugout. Was this guy complaining about the person he threw at? Did he talk to anyone else? What was he thinking? How does he react? All those things you’d want to know. And then you’d make a decision as to whether this person should be banned from baseball, whether he should be suspended, whether you should do nothing at all and just say, “Hey, the person threw a bad pitch; get over it.”

After nearly a week of testimony the case is not much clearer than this botched analogy, the forensic equivalent of a “wardrobe malfunction.”

The Washington Post described Judith Miller’s testimony yesterday as “potentially damaging” to Libby. And this is surely accurate if one focuses on the word “potentially.” But her testimony was also even more potentially helpful to the defense.

Libby’s lawyers are expected to maintain that his “false” statements to the FBI and to a grand jury were the product of a faulty memory. So far, a number of prosecution witnesses have given testimony that differs significantly from what Libby told FBI investigators and the grand jury. But more importantly they have been shown to have strikingly deficient memories themselves.

Judith Miller had 85 days in the Alexandria jail in which to refresh her recollections about the sequence of events that brought her there. But no sooner was she released and brought before the grand jury, than she was compelled to acknowledge that she had entirely forgotten a critical meeting with Libby in June of 2003. If she could forget such a vital detail, will the jury convict Libby for lying, when the possibility that he simply forgot has been powerfully sketched by Miller and others in the witness parade?

It is possible that Scooter Libby is lying through his catcher’s mask. But my bet is that, if the jury takes seriously the meaning of the words “reasonable doubt,” Patrick Fitzgerald will have been judged to have pitched four balls, and Scooter, now up at bat, will get to walk.

To see key exhibits in the Scooter Libby case, click here.

To see key exhibits in the Baseball Hall of Fame, click here.