CHICAGO (AP) — Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich made his first appearance at his second federal corruption trial Thursday, appearing relaxed but remaining uncharacteristically quiet as he arrived at a downtown Chicago courthouse.
Blagojevich wasn’t required to appear a day earlier when potential jurors began answering written questionnaires, but Judge James Zagel wanted Blagojevich in court when the judge started questioning jurors one by one.
Arriving at the courthouse with his wife, the typically outspoken Blagojevich said only that he would talk “afterward.”
Blagojevich’s first trial ended last year with jurors deadlocked on all but one count of lying to the FBI.
The 54-year-old Blagojevich still faces 20 charges, including accusations he sought to sell or trade an appointment to President Obama’s old U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job.
Blagojevich held hands with his wife, Patti, as he paused to briefly chat with a bystander before walking into the courtroom. Several minutes later, marshals led nearly 50 potential panelists inside to take an oath before individual questioning began.
At one point, Judge Zagel had the potential jurors leave the room so he could discuss with lawyers the prospective panelists’ questionnaires.
The judge said an “extraordinarily large number” of potential jurors indicated they believe some politicians take money to influence their votes. That answer would not necessarily preclude someone from sitting on the jury, the judge indicated, adding that some potential jurors “regard the entire system as corrupt.” He said one person in particular was clearly “embittered by life in general,” and he suggested that person might not be “the best juror.”
The judge added that an “extraordinarily large number of people” asked to be excused from jury duty.
Judge Zagel’s questioning of individual jurors will be aimed at determining whether any potential panelists harbor strong biases for or against Blagojevich or followed the first trial closely. But some knowledge of the case won’t automatically exclude a prospective juror if the person can assure the judge that he or she can assess the evidence evenhandedly.
The judge and lawyers hope to quickly whittle away at the large juror pool and choose a 12-person jury with several alternates by the middle of next week.
During jury selection for the first trial, Judge Zagel dismissed several jurors on grounds of bias or because the lengthy trial would cause their families extreme hardship. One woman was dismissed after she acknowledged she had two friends who had worked in the Blagojevich administration.
Since last year’s 2½-month trial, federal prosecutors have simplified their case and dropped complex charges to address concerns the evidence was too difficult to follow. Blagojevich returns with a scaled-down defense team, and he’s also now the lone defendant after the government dropped all charges against his brother.
Blagojevich faces up to five years in prison for the sole conviction at the first trial. A conviction on just one offense this time could mean a decade or more behind bars.
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