Rod Blagojevich 'silly,' but not a criminal, defense says

The defense lawyer for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich waved his arms, shouted, and worked up a sweat in a rowdy closing argument Tuesday. Jury deliberations begin Wednesday.

By , Staff Writer

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    Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich talks with Darrell Murphy as he arrives at the Federal Court building in Chicago for closing arguments in his federal corruption trial Tuesday.
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Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich may talk a lot and possess “horrible judgment in people” but he’s no criminal. That’s the gist of the case made by Mr. Blagojevich’s defense attorney, Sam Adam Jr., in his bombastic closing argument Tuesday.

Mr. Adam waved his arms, shouted, and worked up a sweat as he tried to convince jurors that his client is not guilty of the 24 counts against him, including extortion, fraud, and perjury, and the allegation that he attempted to sell the US Senate seat vacated by President Obama. In the process, he elicited a nonstop stream of objections – nearly all sustained – from the federal prosecutors.

“It’s beginning to look more like a show,” said Judge James Zagel after one objection.

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The contrast between the defense and the prosecution – one loud, theatrical, and filled with emotion; the other careful and precise as prosecutor Chris Niewoehner walked jurors through the government’s complex case on Monday – is a dramatic one, and Adam’s style is one more often seen in state court than in a federal courthouse, say observers.

“Whenever the government has a strong case, it’s boring and methodical, and when the defense doesn’t have anything else to do it kicks all four walls and screams about the abuse of governmental power,” says Albert Alschuler, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law. “And you suspect that the defense is not looking for an acquittal, [but] is looking for a hung jury.”

When jurors begin deliberations, they’ll need to consider whether, as Mr. Niewoehner claims, Blagojevich was clearly shown to have conspired to pressure people for campaign contributions and to sell the Senate seat – “the culmination of years of dirty schemes,” according to Niewoehner. Or whether, as his attorneys claim, he’s simply an insecure man who talks too much, was an ineffective governor, and was constantly in debt, but never took money illegally and committed no crime.

"Did they bring one state contract based on fundraising? Just one?” Adam asked jurors. “No."

When Adam arrived at the courthouse Tuesday morning, observers were wondering whether he’d even deliver the closing argument, after a confrontation with Judge Zagel the night before that was the latest in the bizarre twists that have come to characterize the Blagojevich story since he was arrested a year and a half ago.

Zagel told him he would be held in contempt of court if he insisted on mentioning witnesses that the prosecution did not call, telling jurors they should infer that the witnesses would have hurt the case against Blagojevich.

“I’m willing to go to jail over this,” Adam retorted. Zagel gave him the night to rework his closing statement, given his “profound misunderstanding of legal rules.”

Since the defense also could have called those witnesses – including people like convicted fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko and Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel – the judge had ruled it inadmissible for Adam to refer to them, making what is known as a “missing witness” argument. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled the chief of staff's name.]

“That was grandstanding, it had nothing to do with his client,” says Douglas Godfrey, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and a former criminal defense lawyer, of the confrontation with the judge. The judge is correct, he added, that the closing arguments are supposed to be based on evidence.

When Adam eventually did give his closing argument, he began by pointing out the most conspicuous missing witness of all: Blagojevich himself, who he had repeatedly promised would take the stand, before deciding against it last week.

He called the governor’s absence from the stand “the pink elephant in the room,” and said he didn’t appear because the government had failed to prove its case.

"I had no idea that in two and a half months of trial that they'd prove nothing," he told jurors.

As expected, Adam harped on the fact that the evidence, including many hours of wiretapping tapes with expletive-laced comments from the former governor talking about kickbacks he’d like to have – was largely circumstantial, and he portrayed his client as a buffoon and an ineffective governor, at one point calling him “silly” given the scenarios he imagined.

“This is a man who considered appointing Oprah Winfrey” to the US Senate, Adam said. “No one’s going to say he’s the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he’s not corrupt.”

He pleaded with the jury to find Blagojevich not guilty, telling them, “this is serious stuff.”

In its rebuttal, the prosecution took strong issue with Adam's arguments.

Blagojevich “is not stupid, he’s very smart,” prosecutor Reid Schar told the jury. “He didn’t get elected twice ... by accident.”

Mr. Schar stressed that the governor was someone who knew “how to communicate” his shakedown attempts without being explicit.

Schar criticized Adam’s defense as saying, essentially, “I didn’t do it, and if I did it, I didn’t mean to do it,” and told jurors they needed to hold Blagojevich accountable for his actions.

When jurors return Wednesday to begin deliberations, they’ll be read a long list of instructions. They’ll have to decide whether the evidence shows that Blagojevich was, in fact, the conspiracy ringleader the prosecution says he is. Defendants in federal court rarely get acquitted, and many observers say that the case against the former governor is a strong one.

“I think it’s an uphill battle for the defense,” says Professor Alschuler of Northwestern. Still, he adds, “it’s very hard to predict juries.”

• AP material was used in this report.

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