Flexing His Muscle

The Air Force Academy discovered that prosecuting accused steroid-abusers is as tricky as attorney Rick Collins says.

In Legal Muscle, his self-published book about steroids and the law, attorney Rick Collins points out that one sign of law enforcement's ignorance of steroids can be found in the text of the Anabolic Steroid Control Act, which misspells several anabolic compounds in places and lists others twice under different names. The lack of knowledge about the drugs, Collins adds, filters down to the cops on the street.

It's understandable. Everyone knows that heroin is illegal. But what about 13b-ethyl-17b-hydroxygon-4-en-3-one? Or androstanediol? (Answers: The former, not specifically illegal in 1990, is illegal now; the latter, a so-called steroid precursor, is illegal to sell to minors in California, but not elsewhere.)

Prosecutors for the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs learned the hard way just how tricky steroid cases could be. Last summer, the school announced with great fanfare that it was charging five of its cadets with either possessing or selling steroids. The Air Force has its own criminal code. As civilians, the young men would've faced a couple years in prison if convicted, but as cadets, they were looking at between ten and 66 years of confinement if found guilty.

The first to go to trial was junior Overton Spence. A highly regarded linebacker for Fisher DeBerry's Falcons football team, Spence had been busted when an anonymous tipster at the academy informed military officials that a friend of his had steroids in his backpack. A search of that backpack, owned by another football player, Matthew Ward, revealed methandrostenolone -- the chemical name for Dianabol -- and subsequently led investigators to Spence.

Denver defense attorney Serge Herscovici, who'd been recommended to the cadet by the NAACP, represented Spence. Herscovici says that Air Force prosecutors relied heavily on a confession Spence made early in the case. During the August 2004 trial, however -- during which Coach DeBerry spoke glowingly of his linebacker's character -- their case unraveled.

For starters, Herscovici insisted that his client was taking steroids for the good of the academy. Spence wasn't trying to get high, or even cheat at sports; he was trying to keep his weight up during a rigorous summer military training program all cadets must go through. Without the steroids, Spence was worried he wouldn't have the strength left over to make the football team, whose practices began just after the training.

In addition, Herscovici convinced the military judge that, even though Spence confessed that he used steroids, he had no idea what he was doing. "He admitted to using," the attorney says now. "But he'd been misdirected by the media, the Internet and muscle magazines. Surely this stuff wouldn't be advertised for sale if it was illegal, right? So he thought it must be legal. There's a lot of misinformation circulating out there." Herscovici says Spence concluded that, while the injectable forms of steroids were against the law, anabolic pills were not.

Bolstering his case was testimony from a Colorado Bureau of Investigation officer that not all anabolic steroids, in fact, were illegal. In other words, it was possible that Spence could have made an honest mistake. "The judge was flabbergasted to learn that there are legal steroids," Herscovici says. "Even toward the end of the case, the investigators there still didn't understand the ins and outs of this kind of case. I ended up finding out that they had a misconception of steroids as a whole."

In fact, Spence may have gotten off because of a misconception. The CBI officer was wrong: Possession of any anabolic steroid without a prescription is always illegal. But the judge bought what Herscovici and Spence were selling. On September 1, Spence was found not guilty.

Next up was Matthew Ward, a Falcon running back. Air Force prosecutors charged that he was using the drugs to gain an advantage on the football field. But, as Herscovici did in Spence's trial, attorney William Muhr contended that his client was just trying to maintain his strength and size through the academy's grueling training. As he did for Spence, Coach DeBerry showed up to vouch for Ward's character.

"These guys want to excel," Muhr told Westword. "They want to be the best the Air Force ever had. They wanted to use whatever means necessary to do it. But they didn't know they were crossing the line. Both Overton Spence and Cadet Ward were really just trying to get the edge through muscle enhancers.

"You do what you can to peak your performance," he continues. "When I was a kid playing football, I took protein pills. Last night I took vitamins before I went to sleep. Because these guys were so motivated, they suffered a lot of harm."

Muhr's defense began with casting doubt on the academy's motivation for so vigorously prosecuting the cadets. "They were too motivated to get a conviction," he says. "I think there was pressure to convict for steroid use because the Air Force was tired of its tarnished image." (Through the academy's public-information office, Air Force prosecutors declined to comment for this article.)

Like Spence before him, Ward insisted he didn't know the pills he was taking were illegal. The same CBI officer who appeared in Spence's trial to explain how there were legal and illegal steroids, Kenneth VanCleave, made another appearance.

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