Commentary: Armstrong case a losing battle
August 25, 2012
I don’t presume to know whether Lance Armstrong is guilty of blood doping, and I don’t particularly care. It wouldn’t crush my spirit. Being lied to by athletes, politicians and every other type of public hero for decades tends to drain a person’s capacity for idol worship. But I do know that this was one fight that neither he nor anyone else could win, guilty or not.
In 1995, a woman in Alabama named Dorothy Gaines was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison for selling crack. Five years later, President Clinton granted her clemency, spurred in large part by public outcry over the length of Gaines’ sentence coupled with the fact that the only evidence against her was the testimony of her alleged co-conspirators in a drug ring. Gaines had made no deals with prosecutors and got the steepest sentence of all the defendants.
Mandatory-minimum sentencing laws forced judges of that era to hand down relatively lengthy prison terms for drug offenses. There was one way, however, for defendants to get lighter sentences – if they ratted out other people. As one activist told San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders shortly before Gaines was pardoned, “The less you know, the more time you’re going to do because the only way to reduce a sentence is trading information.”
The mandatory minimums have been drastically reformed since then, but the informant system hasn’t. When testimony alone can be sufficient for a suspect to stand trial, it’s a gold mine for prosecutors, leading to multiple convictions with little or no physical evidence. Still, in the U.S. judicial system, allowing such a trial to take place in the first place is at the discretion of the court.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency isn’t part of the U.S. judicial system. It was created by the U.S. Olympic Committee as its drug-policy-enforcement arm, eventually expanding its reach into other areas (with some much-publicized complications when it comes to Armstrong’s case). USADA is a private company, which means it’s not subject to the kind of oversight or rules that federal courts are. It does, however, receive most of its funding from the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, which for almost 25 years has been a primary contributor to this country’s most backward, overzealous and dishonest positions regarding illegal substances.
Since 1999, USADA and its international equivalent and ally, the World Anti-Doping Agency, have been scooping up snitches in the cycling world, reducing threatened punishments in exchange for scandalous stories about fellow racers, including Armstrong. Meanwhile, they weren’t getting much else, and Armstrong was busy winning races and passing hundreds of drug tests. As the Washington Post’s Tracee Hamilton put it last week, “People lie. Blood and urine usually don’t.”
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When a federal judge in Texas threw out his lawsuit against USADA last week, Armstrong’s battle went from another of his career’s many obstacles to a very lopsided game of chance. Faced with the prospect of continuing an expensive legal process just for the pleasure of being tried in a kangaroo court, having the informants’ stories – true or not – plastered across every sports section in the world and finishing it all off with an almost certain conviction, he did what he’d never done before but what anyone with a brain would have.
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