They were close. After three weeks of respectful but increasingly tense deliberations, 11 jurors were ready to convict Rod Blagojevich of what prosecutors called a “political corruption crime spree” that would have sent yet another former Illinois governor to prison.
Not close enough. On vote after vote, the jury kept coming up one juror short — a lone holdout who wouldn’t budge and would agree only that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. “The person just did not see the evidence that everyone else did,” said juror Stephen Wlodek.
The guilty verdict on the least serious of the 24 counts against him, and mistrial on all the rest, led Blagojevich to taunt prosecutors in the courthouse lobby. More than a year after federal prosecutors accused him of crimes that would make Abraham Lincoln “roll over in his grave,” the disgraced politician bragged about essentially fighting them to a draw.
“This fight is a lot bigger than just me and my family. This is a fight for the very freedoms that we as Americans enjoy,” said Blagojevich, who promised to appeal his conviction on the single count. “The right to be able to be innocent, the right to be able to do your job and to not be lied about.”
The former governor’s brother and co-defendant, Robert Blagojevich, said the jury’s conclusion showed he’s been “an innocent target of the federal government.”
“I feel strong. I feel confident. I don’t feel in any way deterred. I’ve done nothing wrong,” he said. “I’ve got ultimate confidence in my acquittal.”
The outcome that left the Blagojevich brothers so pleased came as a disappointment to three jurors who spoke to The Associated Press late Tuesday, hours after the exhausted panel departed the courthouse. They said further deliberations would not have mattered — a second unanimous decision on a charge of attempted extortion evaporated shortly before the verdicts were to be read.
“I think in the end, based on what happened today, the people of the state just did not have justice served,” said Wlodek, 36, a human resources manager whose job in the jury room was playing the FBI wiretap tapes in which Blagojevich, often in the most profane language imaginable, discussed his alleged schemes.
Federal prosecutors — no doubt stung by the jury’s inability to reach a decision on all but the single charge — were as emphatic as the former governor. When U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel said Tuesday he would give prosecutors time to decide whether to take Blagojevich to court again, prosecutor Reid Schar spoke up instantly: “It is absolutely our intention to retry this.”
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald later thanked the jury for its service but refused to comment on their decision, citing the need to prepare for Blagojevich’s second trial. Zagel set a hearing for Aug. 26 to decide manner and timing of the retrial, and a former federal prosecutor said the 11-1 split in favor of conviction on several counts bodes well for the government.
“At the end of the day it signals very strongly they will get a conviction next time,” said Joel Levin, who helped win a conviction of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan in 2006. “It sounds like the case was lost in jury selection.”
It had been clear jurors were struggling with the case. Last week, they told Zagel they had reached an unanimous decision on just two counts and had not even considered 11 others.
Wlodek and the other two jurors disagreed on the exact number of counts in which the jury eventually voted 11-1 to convict, they did agree on this: On at least some of the most serious counts, the overwhelming sentiment was Blagojevich was not just a politician blowing off steam in conversations recorded by the FBI in which he said the power to name a senator was “(expletive) golden” and that he wasn’t going to give it up “for (expletive) nothing.”
“I had him guilty on all counts,” said James Matsumoto, 66, a Vietnam veteran and retired television station librarian who served as foreman.
Matsumoto and juror Erik Sarnello said the most sensational allegation — that Blagojevich tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama‘s Senate seat — was the one that most jurors agreed was true.
“For a lot of us, the Senate seat was the most obvious,” said Sarnello, a 21-year-old College of DuPage student from Itasca.
Unlike some juries that report angry deliberations and even physical confrontations, jurors in the Blagojevich case said that while there was arguing, it was always respectful. “No yelling,” Sarnello said. But he and Wlodek told the AP that after three weeks, it was clear one juror, a woman they wouldn’t name, would not be swayed.
“She just didn’t see it like we all did,” Sarnello said. “At a certain point there was no changing. … You can’t make somebody see something they don’t see.”
The three jurors said there was agreement in the jury room that Fitzgerald’s case was not as strong as it could have been, and Matsumoto and Sarnello said they were bothered by the complexities of the government’s case. “It was hard to follow,” Sarnello said.
Matsumoto said he thinks prosecutors jumped the gun by arresting Blagojevich in December 2008, before he’d appointed someone to fill Obama’s Senate seat. It would have been much easier to convict Blagojevich if there had been a “smoking gun” of some kind, Matsumoto said.
But when they didn’t find one, some jurors argued the whole alleged scheme, as ugly as it sounded on the secretly recorded FBI tapes, amounted to “just politics,” he said.
The closest jurors came to any kind of “smoking gun” was the tapes themselves. When the accusations were only based on testimony and not Blagojevich’s own recorded words, Matsumoto said reaching a verdict was a tougher call. Some jurors didn’t believe various witnesses weren’t credible or had simply made a deal to save themselves, he said.
As for the tapes, Wlodek said he was “shocked to hear your governor use language like that.” But he and others said the language did not affect their decision. Sarnello said jurors also were not bothered by Blagojevich’s refusal to take the witness stand.
In the months after his arrest, Blagojevich featured his over-the-top personality on a reality television show, as the host of a weekly radio talk show and even on stage at Chicago’s famed “Second City” comedy review. But he showed no emotion as the verdict was read, sitting with his hands folded, looking down and picking nervously at his fingernails, as the jury entered the courtroom.
After the jury delivered its single verdict and Zagel declared a mistrial on the rest of the charges, the Blagojevich bravado was back.
“This jury shows you that the government threw everything but the kitchen sink at me,” Blagojevich said. “They could not prove I did anything wrong — except for one nebulous charge from five years ago.”
Associated Press writers Michael Tarm, Karen Hawkins, Serena Dai, Carla K. Johnson and Caryn Rousseau contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press