Why Rod Blagojevich didn't testify at his corruption trial

Lawyers for Rod Blagojevich may not have wanted to risk putting the fiery former Illinois governor on the stand, or they may think they have the case locked up.

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    Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor accused of trying to trade Barack Obama's US senate seat for political favors and donations, may have declined to testify as a show of confidence.
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Rod Blagojevich and his defense team have promised for months that he would testify at his trial. Put him on the stand and he would finally clear up the charges against him, they said. But that opportunity came and went Wednesday as the former Illinois governor’s lawyers rested their case without calling a single witness, including the ex-governor himself.

Mr. Blagojevich is charged with 24 counts of crimes including fraud, extortion, and conspiracy. He allegedly tried to trade the open Illinois US Senate seat vacated by President Obama for political favors and campaign donations in 2008. Blagojevich was impeached and unanimously removed from office by the Illinois state Senate just before the charges were filed in early 2009.

Legal analysts say Blagojevich’s surprise move might be a show of confidence from his defense team. Ronald Allen, a law professor at Northwestern University, says there two reasons why defense lawyers will choose not to call their own clients as witnesses.

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“One, you think you already won,” Mr. Allen says. “Or two, you’re not sure if you’ve won and you don’t want to take a chance."

Allen says that in his opinion, the true reason is closer to the second than the first. Blagojevich is infamous for saying the first thing that comes to his mind, which could end up being a problem in a close trial.

“The defense is worried that Blagojevich will get up there and start saying ridiculous things and make matters worse,” Allen says.

Ronald Smith, at professor at Chicago's John Marshall Law School, agrees. He says the defense will argue that Blagojevich’s testimony is unnecessary to prove his innocence. [Editor's note: The original version of this article stated that Ronald Smith was the director of the John Marshall Law School. He is a professor and the director of the Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution there.]

“Their final argument will be, ‘We would have but him on the stand, but there’s no case here,’” Mr. Smith says. “‘It’d be a waste of time and there’s just no evidence here,’” he says they'd argue.

Though the US attorneys prosecuting the case demonstrated confidence by resting early themselves two weeks ago, the strength of their case is unclear. The outcome of the case is a “coin flip,” Smith says, and the defense might think they have a strong enough case to avoid the risk of putting the madcap Blagojevich on the stand.

“The government has made a compelling case on a number of counts, but a lot of this is circumstantial evidence,” Allen says. “There are no dead bodies or smoking guns.”

There is also the small matter of the ex-governor’s brother’s experience on the stand. The prosecution blew up Robert Blagojevich’s credibility as a witness with previously unplayed audio recordings of his conversations with his brother. The defense may have taken that as a hint of what the prosecutors could do to the former governor if he took the stand.

“Once they saw what the prosecution could do to his brother, they might have thought twice about putting the governor on the stand,” Smith says. “I don’t think they wanted to expose him like that.”

Of course, there is also the chance that Blagojevich’s legal strategy is not a strategy at all, but rather another impulsive decision taken by the brash former governor. Though Blagojevich has promised for months to take the stand and testify on his own behalf, he could have changed his mind of his own volition.

“The reality is that the defendant and only the defendant makes that decision,” Smith says. “Blagojevich’s call is guided by his lawyers, but he’s the one.”

Closing arguments in the case will take place Monday morning.

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