The federal judge conducting the sentencing hearing of Rod Blagojevich Tuesday heard from many people stumping on his behalf why the impeached Illinois governor should only receive the minimum prison time.
But he never heard a direct apology from Mr. Blagojevich, which most federal experts agree is crucial in getting a lesser sentence than federal guidelines suggest.
“He’s expressed no remorse. He says he’s sorry he got caught, he’s sorry his family got hurt, and he’s sorry he’s not governor anymore,” says Patrick Cotter, a former US prosecutor now in private practice in Chicago. “If you’re not sorry, don’t say anything at all because all it does is antagonize the judge.”
Blagojevich was convicted of 18 counts of corruption related to the attempt to curry President Obama’s former US Senate seat for favors. The prosecution won the convictions over two separate trials, the second of which ended this summer. Prosecutors recommend Blagojevich receive 15 to 20 years in prison. US District Judge James Zagel says he will issue his sentencing verdict Wednesday.
In the meantime, the defense ushered into the courtroom several people who told the judge Blagojevich had good intentions at heart and that he received bad advice from aides and advisers in discussions heard on FBI wiretapped recordings.
The ex-governor “is a kind and compassionate man who is sincere in his desire to help people,” said defense attorney Carolyn Gurland. To demonstrate, she introduced a Chicago pediatrician who told the judge how a children’s health insurance program that Blagojevich created as governor became a lifesaver during the subsequent recession.
Ms. Gurland also stressed that Blagojevich received no money from his scheming. She described him as not knowing what he was doing was wrong and therefore assuming “his conduct was within the bounds of the law.”
Judge Zagel disagreed with the defense’s portrayal, saying Blagojevich “was not a supplicant” who fell prey to bad advice.
“I do believe that it is absurd to contend that his staff and advisers would devise a criminal scheme whose only aim was to benefit the defendant.… He was interested in himself,” he said.
The defense also produced a letter from Patti Blagojevich, the former first lady, who said her husband was dedicated to his family, suggesting that a lengthy prison term would destroy the relationship between him and his two daughters. Gurland told the judge that multiple appearances on primetime reality television shows was not to grab a shot at fame, but to generate income so both their daughters could remain in private school.
While efforts to portray the defendant in a positive light are important, Mr. Cotter says the more credible component of any federal sentencing hearing is an admission of guilt. That may be a tall order for Blagojevich who spent much of his time outside the two trials protesting his treatment by both the prosecution and judge.
An apology during sentencing is “an acknowledgement you broke the law,” which is essential for a judge to hear when he is making a decision based on deterrence.
“When you have the defendant standing before you and he makes all sorts of claims about how [a harsh sentence] will hurt his family, it’s a lot easier to consider if the guy has earned some credibility because he admitted what everyone knows,” he says.
The closest Blagojevich came to an apology Tuesday was a statement made in the late afternoon to Zagel through his attorney.
“We accept the fact [that Blagojevich’s actions were a] crime,” said defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky. “It’s illegal. He should not have done it.”
The defense is asking that Blagojevich receive a minimum sentence of just over four years.