Rod Blagojevich sentencing: Does he deserve at least 15 years in prison?

Rod Blagojevich, former governor of Illinois, appears in court Tuesday for sentencing. Prosecutors are pushing for a 15- to 20-year sentence, and they have the upper hand, experts say. 

By , Staff writer

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    Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich leaves the federal court building surrounded by media April 14, 2009, in Chicago. Convicted on multiple counts of corruption, Blagojevich is scheduled for a sentencing hearing beginning Tuesday at federal court in Chicago.
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Rod Blagojevich faces a federal judge Tuesday who might send the impeached Illinois governor to federal prison for nearly 20 years, experts say.

The sentencing hearing, which is expected to last into Wednesday, concludes a three-year political saga here that started outside Mr. Blagojevich’s home, where he was arrested on charges he tried to sell or trade President Obama’s vacated US Senate seat.

It took two trials for federal prosecutors to get what they wanted: conviction on 17 of 20 counts, including bribery and attempted extortion. A first trial resulted in a single conviction of lying to the FBI and a deadlocked jury on all other counts.

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Prosecutors are recommending to US District Judge James Zagel that Blagojevich receive between 15 and 20 years behind bars. They say their analysis of federal sentencing guidelines shows that he deserves 30 years to life, but are suggesting a lesser sentence due to the hardships imposed on his wife and two daughters.

Blagojevich "has refused to accept any responsibility for his criminal conduct and, rather, has repeatedly obstructed justice and taken action to further erode respect for the law,” prosecutors wrote in a filing released last week. They also say that Blagojevich’s sentence needs to be higher than the 6-1/2 years given to former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who is currently sitting in federal prison on corruption charges, including fraud and racketeering.

Prosecutors “have the stronger hand” than Blagojevich’s defense team in swaying Judge Zagel to their side because “a lengthy sentence serves the metrics of both deterrence and punishment, and the defense has little or nothing to present to support a request for leniency,” says Marcellus McRae, a former US prosecutor based in Los Angeles.

The defense contends that, according to federal sentencing guidelines, Blagojevich should receive only a little more than four years. In court papers, the defense described Blagojevich as “a tragic figure; an impeached, unemployed criminal defendant, abandoned by all of this advisers and friends; a figure drawing public ridicule and scorn.”

Patrick Cotter, a former US prosecutor now in private practice in Chicago, says the defense calculations are “just wrong,” and that he suspects Zagel will sentence Blagojevich to 15 years. The reason: The federal trial of former Blagojevich fundraiser and Democratic Party power broker Tony Rezko resulted in a 10-year sentence two weeks ago, creating a baseline number for the Blagojevich sentencing.

Blagojevich will receive a lengthier sentence than Mr. Rezko, because the former governor’s case involved an abuse of the public trust, a longer period of criminal behavior, scheming involving more money, and a conviction of perjury, Mr. Cotter says.

The final determining factor is that, unlike Rezko, Blagojevich “has never said he’s sorry and never expressed any remorse,” says Cotter. “Based on his filing, he appears to feel he’s a victim, and he’ll still get up tomorrow and say he never did anything wrong.” 

“He’s going to get 15 years because he was the governor and he engaged, for many, many years, in a long and fairly outrageous course of corrupt conduct in a grotesquely flagrant way. He did it when everyone in the state knew he was under investigation,” says Cotter. “He was just sort of out of control.”

However, some say a 15-year sentence would be unjust given that Blagojevich has no criminal history and is not considered a threat to society.

Joseph DiBenedetto, a defense attorney in New York City who once represented imprisoned crime boss Peter Gotti, says 15-year sentences are usually reserved for “people who are involved in crimes of violence or in a situation where they’re involved in financial fraud where the dollar amount embezzled is a significant number.”

Mr. DiBenedetto calls the prosecution’s recommendation “excessive,” especially when sentencing is designed to impose deterrence.

“Five to seven years has the same deterrent effect as somebody charged 15 years, especially for somebody who is not a repeat offender, who made a mistake, and who paid dearly for their mistake,” he says.

In Wednesday’s sentencing, Zagel will decide whether to take Blagojevich into custody that day or to name a future date at which Blagojevich will be required to surrender to authorities.  

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