Rod Blagojevich: As he contemplates jury's message, the bluster is gone

Before his second trial, Rod Blagojevich cast himself alternately as an amiable populist or a political warrior. But now convicted on 17 counts, the former governor is somber and pensive.

By , Staff writer

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    Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich greets supporters as he arrives home in Chicago, Monday, after a jury convicted him of 17 of the 20 charges against him, including all 11 charges related to his attempt to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.
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In the two years and seven months between Rod Blagojevich’s arrest on his front lawn in Chicago and Monday’s jury verdict convicting him of 17 counts of wire fraud, extortion, and bribery, the former Illinois governor was alternately an amiable populist stumping for public empathy or a fierce political warrior, launching verbal missiles at perceived enemies.

But Tuesday morning, confronted with the possibility of facing his twilight years in federal prison, Mr. Blagojevich was unusually somber.

“A lot of what life is, is how you deal with adversities … it’s a true test of who you are and it’s an example to your children on how you deal with the tough times,” he told reporters outside his Chicago home. “Through that adversity and hardship can come good things.”

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His reflective approach will be put to the test Aug. 1, the day US District Judge James Zagel starts sentencing arguments, giving Blagojevich a chance to seek mercy and reduce his prison term.

Almost every count carries a prison term of 20 years and $250,000 in fines, although most experts agree it is unlikely the maximum will be enforced. It also is likely some terms will be served concurrently. In his first trial, Blagojevich was also found guilty of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Whatever the details of the sentencing, Blagojevich faces a lifetime of figuring out whether his testimony in his second trial, which ran for seven days and allowed the former governor to tap his expert campaign skills, helped or hindered the jury’s decision.

Speaking to the media after the trial, some jurors agreed that they found Blagojevich genuinely likable. But, they said, they sensed that his string of comic asides and long-winded explanations were part of a strategy to show he was nothing more than an aloof talker who had no intention of carrying out the schemes he is heard discussing on FBI wiretap recordings.

“I did really feel that his testimony at times was really manipulative, which I didn’t appreciate. I wanted to hear the facts. I didn’t want to have my emotions played,” said Karin Wilson.

Ms. Wilson also said the jury, consisting of 11 women and one man, could not help but consider how their decision would affect Blagojevich’s two children. The conversation, however, was inevitably followed by a sense that their responsibility was limited to the charges, and that Blagojevich was ultimately responsible for how his actions affected his family.

“We live in a world of right and wrong. When you make good decisions, good things happen to you. And when you make bad decisions, not-so-good things happen to you,” she said.

Blagojevich’s testimony persuaded the jury to save him from three counts related to an alleged scheme to shake down a construction company for bribes. For those, the jury deadlocked on two and found him not guilty of a third.

However, the jury was certain of his guilt regarding the 13 charges related to the sale of President Obama’s former US Senate seat. Wilson said those charges were “the easiest” on which to reach guilty verdicts.

“It wasn’t just one attempt. It was attempt after attempt after attempt that was made,” she said.

Unlike the first trial where the jury was described as contentious and often argumentative, deliberating for three weeks until deadlocking on all but one count, the jurors in the second trial were noteworthy for their calm and unanimity. Experts agree that much of the credit should go to federal prosecutors, who simplified their case by dropping counts and creating a strategy that emphasized that Blagojevich’s words constituted wrongdoing, even if they didn’t result in successful personal gain.

For instance, in her three-hour closing argument, US assistant attorney Carrie Hamilton used a PowerPoint presentation to succinctly summarize each count to show how Blagojevich operated with the sole purpose of bettering himself. “The defendant intended to defraud. It was not a mistake or accident,” Ms. Hamilton said.

The strategy was key to earning the convictions, which, taken collectively, are “a pretty brutal statement from the jury,” says Shari Seidman Diamond, a law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago.

“The verdict is not confined to one thing nor is it a kitchen sink kind of verdict where everything is thrown at [Blagojevich],” Ms. Diamond says. “They picked and chose."

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