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In his federal retrial, Blagojevich takes the stand and center stage

Last summer, when a jury convicted Blagojevich on one count and deadlocked on all the rest, he didn't testify. This time defense lawyers apparently are betting on his personal charm.

By Staff writer / May 26, 2011

In this courtroom sketch, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, takes the witness stand in his second corruption trial, Thursday, in Chicago. Blagojevich, who was convicted of one count of lying to the FBI in his original trial, faces 20 federal counts at his second trial, including allegations that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's former Senate seat.

Tom Gianni/AP

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Chicago

With the departure of Oprah Winfrey Wednesday, the hottest ticket in town Thursday became the federal retrial of Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who took the stand to testify against charges he was involved in schemes to use his former office to enrich his bank account and political future.

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Last summer Mr. Blagojevich was convicted on one count of 24 filed against him stemming from what prosecutors described as a pay-to-play scandal involving President Obama’s former US Senate seat. That single conviction, lying to the FBI, carries with it the maximum of five years in prison.

But the jury deadlocked on the rest of the counts, resulting in this second trial, which opened last month.

Beginning with Blagojevich’s arrest at his home in December 2008, the former governor has campaigned for his innocence on any outlet that would have him: prime time television shows, morning drive radio, and public appearances.

He says he is a victim of a political vendetta crafted by his enemies in Springfield, the state capital. His mantra has been a call to have a complete airing of the wiretap recordings taken of his phone conversations in order to show the context to his most inflammatory statements. He also repeatedly has insisted he take the stand to testify, an opportunity that did not come to fruition in the first trial.

His day in court finally came Thursday. His appearance came as a surprise to some court watchers who assumed the reason he did not testify in the first trial was because he could not guarantee keeping in check his propensity for going off topic.

However, Andrew Stoltmann, a Chicago lawyer who is tracking the trial, says one reason Blagojevich’s defense team opted to allow him to speak this time is because of what they learned during the first trial: That all the jurors except one were convinced of his guilt.

“They realized how close Blagojevich came to being convicted and realized they had to take a gamble, roll the dice and hope that [he] can sell the jurors on his innocence,” Mr. Stoltmann said.

To anyone who has followed Blagojevich’s television appearances, the opening day of his testimony followed close to character. Much of the morning testimony was spent on his biography: How he met his wife, the admiration he feels for his father, a Serbian immigrant, his insecurity in attending Northwestern University, the meaning of his Serbian name Milorad, and his love of history.

“I had a man-crush on Alexander Hamilton,” he told jurors.

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