CHICAGO (AP) — Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich captivates a crowd — but is he still persuasive?
The 15 women and 3 men in the jury pool at his political corruption retrial initially hung on every one of the many words Mr. Blagojevich delivered from the witness stand, meeting his gaze as he gestured toward them and told lengthy tales of his working-class roots and complicated motivations.
After hours and hours of talk, though, one juror leaned on his hand, looking impatient as Blagojevich went off on a tangent about the inner workings of Chicago politics. Another woman’s eyes scanned the room as he discussed his long bachelorhood before meeting his wife, Patti.
When he finally began addressing the allegations against him, Blagojevich drew them back in with firm denials of wrongdoing that sent their pens flying across their notebooks.
Blagojevich is set to take the stand for a third day Tuesday, with the most explosive charge still unaddressed: that he tried to sell or trade President Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat in exchange for a high-profile job or large campaign donations.
As Mr. Blagojevich made good on his broken promise from the first trial that he would testify — clearly aware that he’s giving the performance of his life — jurors sat rapt. But it’s hard to predict whether that focus meant his carefully crafted appearance was winning them over.
“The jury really had a stoic look to them,” said Terry Sullivan, a Chicago attorney and former prosecutor who has been inside the courtroom watching the case. “They were pretty intent on listening to him for those three, four hours of biographical rambling.”
Blagojevich has tried to humanize himself to jurors with admissions of his insecurities and vanities, and to chip away at the allegations against him with steadfast denials and alternate explanations for the apparent scheming that jurors have heard on FBI wiretaps played during the trial.
Mr. Sullivan said defense attorneys have done exactly what they needed to do to undermine the government’s witnesses, since ultimately they need just one juror with one reasonable doubt. That’s what happened last year, when a single holdout meant the jury could not agree on 23 of the 24 charges Blagojevich faced.
“One by one … coming up with reasons for everything,” Mr. Sullivan said. “That’s the position that they’re going to have to be in for closing arguments.”
Blagojevich likes to boast that he won every political office he ran for, using his gift of the gab to sway millions to send him to the Illinois House of Representatives, the U.S. Congress and two times to the governor’s mansion. Even the presiding judge has alluded to that political success, saying at a hearing without the jury present that Blagojevich “is perfectly capable of speaking for himself. He got people to believe in him twice.”
“I would be surprised if he cannot defend himself,” Judge James Zagel said.
Now it will be only a dozen people who matter, the final jurors from the pool of 12 jurors and six alternates that include a former school lunch lady, a factory worker and a librarian.
Blagojevich must hope they all believed him as he flatly answered “no” to questions about whether he’d withheld legislation or state money in order to squeeze donors for campaign contributions.
As a candidate, Blagojevich campaigned on his competence, his hunger for reform and the novelty of his last name. Now, Blagojevich the defendant is portraying himself to jurors as a trusting dreamer who nearly flunked out of law school, talks too much and has lousy luck at choosing his friends.
“I didn’t study the books like I should’ve, and I flunked” the bar exam twice, Blagojevich said.
He spent his first legal job out of law school running errands, and he lasted just two years as a Cook County prosecutor and never handled a case in federal court, where he is now a defendant.
The potentially risky strategy could be aimed at bolstering one of the defense’s claims: that Blagojevich had no way of knowing that his actions and discussions were potentially illegal.
And Blagojevich has implied that the government’s witnesses, among them his (former) best friends and closest advisers, were plotting behind his back, using their relationships with him to carry out their personal agendas. His problem, he said, was that he was too trusting, too unwilling to believe that the men he respected most would mislead him.
Jurors in the first trial agreed only to convict Blagojevich of lying to the FBI. His attorneys called no witness, including Blagojevich — who had insisted for months beforehand that he would testify.
When Blagojevich took the stand for the first time Thursday, he seemed nervous. But he became increasingly confident — a trait he likely will need as the prosecution gets its chance to grill him.
“The real test, of course, is going to be whether and how he’s able to survive cross-examination,” Mr. Sullivan said.