In a stunning rebuke, a Chicago jury Monday found disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich guilty of corruption on a massive scale, including multiple counts of trying to sell or trade President Obama’s former Senate seat.
In a legal saga that spanned two years and two full-blown trials, the verdict was a bitter blow to the glad-handing former Democratic congressman who steadfastly maintained his innocence.
“I’m very disappointed in the outcome,” Blagojevich told a scrum of reporters on the courthouse steps after hearing the verdicts. “Frankly, I’m stunned.”
Jurors found the former governor guilty on 17 counts, delivered a not-guilty verdict on one count of bribery and were deadlocked on two counts of extortion after nine days of deliberation.
The veteran politician, whose ethical troubles proved a constant and distracting headache for the Obama White House, could be sentenced to up to 300 years behind bars, but is likely to face far less under federal sentencing guidelines.
The lead U.S. prosecutor in Chicago said the verdict sends a “loud and clear message” that the ousted Illinois governor committed serious crimes. But U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald called Blagojevich’s conviction “a bittersweet moment,” just five years after a similar corruption prosecution sent former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, to prison.
Monday’s decision was the outcome of a hard-fought battle by the 54-year-old Blagojevich, who was arrested in late 2008 after FBI wiretaps caught him infamously blurting out that his power to appoint a Senate replacement for Mr. Obama - who had just been elected president - was “f—ing golden” and that he was “not giving it up for f—ing nothing.”
He was also accused of attempting to shake down executives for campaign donations by threatening certain state decisions that would injure their businesses. Mr. Fitzgerald said after the arrest that Blagojevich’s conduct would “make Lincoln roll over in his grave.” Blagojevich’s attorneys insisted that his comments were just ramblings and nothing on which he would ever follow through.
This was round two for the legal battle. Blagojevich’s first trial in 2010 lasted 11 weeks and ended with a hung jury on all but the least-serious count: lying to federal agents. During that trial, Blagojevich’s attorneys did not call a single witness to the stand to testify on his behalf. He was originally charged with 24 counts, but three counts were dropped for his retrial.
Blagojevich did take the stand in his second trial, but the decision by his defense team did not appear to aid their cause. A juror in the current trial told reporters that the former governor was “personable” but “manipulative” in his testimony.
“Our verdict shows that we didn’t believe it,” said the juror, who was not identified by name in the wire service accounts.
Blagojevich won the 2002 Illinois gubernatorial election in part by billing himself as an anti-corruption candidate, but now joins a long list of Illinois politicians tainted by corruption. A status hearing for sentencing has been set for Aug 1.
Before the verdicts were announced, the defendant stood expressionless after blowing a kiss to his wife, Patti. Afterward, the normally talkative Blagojevich gave a terse statement, saying he just wanted to get home and explain things to his little girls. He said one thing he had learned was to “not talk so much.”<t-4>Despite his protestations of innocence, the Illinois Democrat became something of a media spectacle in the wake of his initial arrest, appearing on reality shows “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here” and “Celebrity Apprentice.” He also penned an autobiography titled “The Governor: The Truth Behind the Political Scandal That Continues to Rock the Nation.”
Prosecutors faced a difficult task because the defendant talked voluminously about various illegal schemes but had not carried out many of his plans.
This time, prosecutors called about half of the previous number of witnesses and asked fewer questions, in an attempt to streamline their case and make it easier for jurors. The trial lasted for six weeks, seven days of which were spent hearing Blagojevich’s testimony. Sergio Acosta, a former federal prosecutor, said the nine days of deliberation were not abnormal for a case with such complexity.
“I think you couldn’t characterize it as short or long. The government did streamline its case somewhat from the first trial and the jury has come back in a shorter amount of time than [the first jury] did. It makes sense that it took this long because there’s a lot of evidence for them to go through,” Mr. Acosta said.
Ralph Meczyk, a criminal defense lawyer from Chicago with extensive experience in white-collar crime, said he was not surprised by the verdict.
“I saw it coming because of the tapes. It was his tone of voice even more than what he said. That was the Achilles’ heel of the case,” Mr. Meczyk said.
He added that he did not think the media blitz affected the jury.
“I think juries work very hard to follow the judge’s instructions. They will look at the evidence very carefully and, believe it or not, they usually do the right thing,” Mr. Meczyk said. “They don’t talk to people about the case after they leave. They don’t look online or at newspapers. Maybe I’m shallow and naive, but I really believe it.”
“I think it was a good idea. He had to explain what he meant on the tapes. It wasn’t a ‘reasonable doubt’ case. To argue reasonable doubt was a waste of time. He had to get up there and explain what he did the best he could,” Mr. Meczyk said. “He did not go down without a fight.”
This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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