Why Blagojevich Didn’t Beat the Charges This Time

Why Blagojevich Didnt Beat the Charges This Time
Two weeks ago, as the prosecution made its final points in his
corruption trial, a pale Rod Blagojevich listened nervously as his wife,
Patti looked on, sullen and indignant, from the bench, the arms of her
brother around her. It was as if they could feel what was coming.

On Monday, June 27, the jury returned from 10 days of deliberation
and everyone gathered to hear its decision. Blagojevich blew an air kiss
to his weeping wife and then clasped his hands as courtroom deputy
Donald Walker began reading the verdict. The first finding of guilt led
Blagojevich to purse his lips. Patti pushed back into her brother’s arms.
With each new pronouncement of guilt, the ex-governor grew more
stonefaced even as his wife wept beneath closed eyes. When Walker was
done reading, Blagojevich had been found guilty on 17 of the 20 counts
against him, including 12 of the most explosive ones, among them wire
fraud and conspiracy and attempted extortion stemming from when he tried
to sell the Senate seat of then President-elect Barack Obama . Later, as he held his wife’s hand,
Blagojevich told the press, “Obviously I was really disappointed with
the outcome, I was frankly stunned and there isn’t much else to say.” On most counts, he faces a maximum of 20-years each and $250,000 in fines. Judges are unlikely to impose maximum sentences, however. It is also not known if the prison terms will be served concurrently. The parties return to court on Aug. 1 to determine sentencing.

The members of the jury, 11 women and one man, spoke to the media
afterward but did not provide their names. They indicated that
Blagojevich’s infamous quote — taped by the FBI — about the Senate
seat being “F-in’ golden” made it easier for them to decide, after some
initial debate, on his guilt. “The Senate Seat was most clear, we felt
he made a trade for the senate seat,” said Juror 140, a Hispanic woman
who teaches third and fourth grade.The forewoman, a retired Director of
Music and Liturgy at a Naperville church, said they were sending a
message that the American people should be proud of a process that works
even when you throw 12 people in the room who had no knowledge of the
legal system. But she said the experience did not make her feel any
better about Illinois politics. “I told my husband if he was running for
politics he’d have to find a new wife.”

This was the second trial Blagojevich faced on most of the same
charges. His defense had dramatic success the first time around with the
successful deployment of the element of surprise. In a stunning move
last summer, Blagojevich’s attorneys rested their case instead of
presenting a single shred of evidence, despite their original promise
that the defendant himself would take the stand. That left the jury
drowning in the government’s complex evidence of intent that
nevertheless had no fully completed act of bribe-taking. Irredeemably
hung, the jurors were unable to convict Blagojevich or his brother
Robert except on one count out of the original 24 charges.

But you can’t surprise all the people all the time. For the second
trial, the trio of U.S. assistant attorneys who made up the prosecution
took to straightforward, focused outrage more than anything else. First
they decided to drop charges against Robert Blagojevich. And then they
streamlined the charges down to 20 and made it clearer that just asking
for a bribe was just as bad as getting the bribe itself. In the
government’s final statement, U.S. assistant Carrie Hamilton, a thin
petite woman with blond hair tucked back in a pony tail, asked the jury
to remember how Blagojevich swore under oath in 2003 and again in 2006
to uphold the state constitution, pledging to use his powers for the
people of Illinois. “You have learned that the defendant violated that
oath,” she said staring down her audience. “He used his power to get
things for himself and tried to trade the signing of a bill, state
funding for grant, roads, appointment of senate seat to try and get
things for himself. This was not only a profound violation of his oath,
but a violation of the law.”

For the second trial, the defense had a trio as well, made up of
Blagojevich’s long time friend Sheldon Sorosky, a short balding man, who
wore loud, dangling ties, and a pair of 30-something attorneys, Aaron
Goldstein and Lauren Kaeseberg. Over the objections of the prosecutors
and even Judge James Zagel, the defense tried to give the appearance
that missing facts, not allowed into trial, would help tell all, hinting
that all Blagojevich was doing was business as usual in the state of
Illinois. This time around, though, they also had Blagojevich testify on
his own behalf. The results were riotous.

At one point, during a particularly voluble exchange with the
prosecution, Blagojevich in the witness stand ignored calls from his own
lawyers to keep quiet and blasted out retorts to the government’s
questions. Goldstein later joked that he may be one of the few attorneys
in history to have a client talk over him. Still, the Blagojevich team
may have thought that the exchange might have helped to prove not only
that the ex-governor liked to be heard but that he was mostly talk and
little action. The defense was all about crafting an image that would
nullify the prosecution’s arguments of a guileful, corrupt public
official. They wanted to have the jury believe that the defendant was a
buffoon who couldn’t really do anything criminal because he wasn’t
competent enough to see it through.

That kind of lawyerly sleight of hand didn’t work this time. The
jurors later said that Blagojevich’s droning seven-day testimony helped
them decide that he was not guilty of the charge that he attempted to
extort a road builder. However, they said the same long-winded performce
made it clear that Blagojevich was being manipulative.

That played into the prosecution’s simpler strategy. In her final
argument, like a college professor, Hamilton took the jury through
conviction school, talking them through a three-hour PowerPoint
presentation of the 20 counts, summarizing the most important evidence,
explaining what constitutes soliciting a bribe, extortion and wire
fraud. “He repeatedly broke the law,” Hamilton told the jury. “It’s
about the destruction of the faith and trust he destroyed.” The case,
Hamilton says, comes down to one question: “Did the defendant try to get
a benefit for himself in exchange for an official act?”

Over three hours, split between two days, Hamilton walked through
five major acts, that consistent soliciting a bribe, extortion and wire
fraud. “The defendant intended to defraud, it was not a mistake or
accident He does not need to know he was breaking the law,” Hamilton
reminded the jury. And then she played the FBI tape where Blagojevich
talks about how he isn’t giving Obama’s Senate seat up for “F-in’
nothing.” “Listen to his voice,” she told the jury. “You can hear him
smiling. He’s giddy.”

“Among the many lessons I’ve learned through this whole experience is
to speak a little less,” Blagojevich said after the verdict was read.
Perhaps knowing their client and knowing the odds, his original defense
team of Sam
Adam Jr. and Sam Adam Sr. opted out of the rematch with the
government. You can only use the element of surprise once. Download TIME’s iPhone, BlackBerry and Android applications.

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.