No smoking gun in Blagojevich trial. Will it matter for prosecution?

The prosecution made its closing arguments Monday in the trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Closing arguments for the defense are Tuesday.

By , Staff writer

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    Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich arrives at the Federal Court building in Chicago Monday. Mr. Blagojevich and his brother are accused of scheming to sell or trade President Obama's old Senate seat.
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The prosecution has wrapped up its closing arguments against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich with a lengthy walk-through of the complicated counts against him.

The prosecution's initial closing arguments Monday took 2-1/2 hours, and while the prosecution provided lots of circumstantial evidence, it lacked the smoking gun that some were anticipating. The defense is expected to argue that the governor, while possibly inept and unethical, was never proved to have done anything truly illegal.

“The government, especially with this very complex indictment, has opened it up for what I call the blowhard defense: ‘He’s all words, no action, and how has he benefited in any way?’ ” says Douglas Godfrey, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and a former criminal defense lawyer. “It’s been a much closer horse race than people had thought.”

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Federal prosecutor Chris Niewoehner began his arguments by recounting what has become the most notorious quote from the former governor, speaking to aides on a recorded phone conversation about the Senate seat vacated by President Obama.

“I’ve got this thing, and it’s [expletive] golden, and I’m not going to give it away for [expletive] nothing.”

The prosecution's argument

Mr. Blagojevich, arrested a year and a half ago and later impeached, has been charged with 24 counts of extortion, fraud, and perjury. His attempt to sell the Senate was “the culmination of years of dirty schemes,” Mr. Niewoehner told the jury.

Apparently anticipating the defense's argument, Niewoehner reminded jurors that it isn’t necessary for Blagojevich’s schemes to have been fulfilled in order for him to be guilty of conspiracy. “You don’t have to be a successful criminal to be a criminal,” he said.

He also tried to cut off any argument that Blagojevich may have been misled by his advisers and unaware that what he was doing was illegal, saying that the tapes made clear that Blagojevich was totally aware of his actions.

And he emphasized that what was important was the intent, as well as the message that got through to people Blagojevich allegedly tried to shake down for
campaign contributions. These include a racetrack owner, a Children’s Hospital executive, and businessman Raghuveer Nayak, who prosecutors say Blagojevich pressed for money in exchange for appointing Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. to the Senate seat.

"You do not have to say to Raghu Nayak, 'I will give you the US Senate seat if you give me $1 million.' It's the message that's important, not the specific words," Niewoehner said.

Niewoehner also reminded jurors of defense attorney Sam Adam Jr.’s opening statement, in which he said the trial would show that “Blagojevich is honest as the day is long,” saying that, in fact, that opposite had been shown.

What's ahead for the defense?

While the defense is expected to capitalize on the circumstantial nature of the evidence, many observers say that the prosecution has made an excellent case against the former governor.

“The government has made a persuasive case on a number of issues,” says Ronald Allen, a law professor at Northwestern University School of Law. “The reason Blagojevich didn’t take the stand was because of legitimate fears he would have made matters much worse, not because the defense is confident they’ll have an acquittal without it,” he adds.

The defense ultimately decided against calling any witnesses, including the former governor.

Jury deliberations are expected to begin Tuesday. If convicted, Blagojevich could face up to $6 million in fines and 415 years in prison.

• AP material was used in this report.

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