Second Blagojevich trial won’t be a rerun of first

Posted April 19, 2011, at 9:13 p.m.
Last modified April 20, 2011, at 12:51 p.m.

CHICAGO — The same defendant. The same judge. The same courthouse. Even the same carefully coiffed hair.

Rod Blagojevich’s second corruption trial begins Wednesday, starring many of the same figures as the first. But this retrial won’t be just a rerun.

Prosecutors have streamlined their case against the disgraced former Illinois governor, dropping some of the most complex charges to address complaints by the previous jury that the evidence was too hard to follow.

Blagojevich, now 54, returns with a scaled-down, more bookish defense team that no longer includes lead lawyer Sam Adam Jr., whose courtroom theatrics in round one often drew the judge’s ire. And this time, Blagojevich will be the lone defendant after authorities dropped all charges against his brother.

Like a second-night Broadway performance, the actors presumably come in with many missteps and miscues corrected.

“Everyone improves,” said Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein.

Surprises are also possible.

For prosecutors, it could be seeking testimony from Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel. For the defense, it could be putting their client on the stand. In the last trial, Blagojevich repeatedly promised to testify, then didn’t.

Speaking at his Chicago home over the weekend, Blagojevich told The Associated Press that he both looked forward to the retrial and dreaded it.

“To have to sit through that and hear all that again … it’s brutal, brutal,” he said with the family dog, Skittles, resting on his lap. Listening to former aides, confidants and once-close friends testify against him was particularly painful, he added. All of them are expected to take the stand again in the weeks ahead.

But Blagojevich, who says he ruled out accepting a plea bargain, said he was also eager for another chance to clear his name. He knows he has a lot to lose.

He could get up to five years in prison for lying to the FBI, the sole count on which he was convicted last year. He faces 20 more counts in the retrial, including bribery and fraud. And the stakes are as high as ever: A conviction on just one offense could mean a decade or more behind bars.

The first order of business Wednesday will be jury selection.

Last year, a single juror who refused to go along with the rest of the panel was the only thing that prevented Blagojevich from being convicted on the most serious charge — that he tried to sell or trade Barack Obama’s old Senate seat.

“Would you want to be the defense knowing you have to change 11 minds to get an acquittal or prosecutors thinking you have to change just one?” said Michael Helfand, a Chicago attorney with experience in federal courts.

Most legal observers say the odds against Blagojevich are steep.

“Federal prosecutors win 90 percent of the time at trial, and odds of winning at retrial are sky-high,” said Beth Foley, a Chicago-based jury consultant.

The defense readily concedes that point.

“David against Goliath was confident, wasn’t he?” Goldstein said. “Our level of confidence is high. … But we know what we are up against.”

Prosecutors have their burdens, too. Last year’s conviction, on the least serious charge, was a huge disappointment for them.

“There’s pressure squarely on the government,” said Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago.

To get a bigger conviction, prosecutors will have to connect the dots more effectively. The government’s case so befuddled jurors at the first trial that they drew up their own timelines of alleged misdeeds and taped them to a wall as they deliberated.

Former juror Stephen Wlodek complained that prosecutors failed to fully explain the case. “It was like, ‘Here’s a manual. Go fly the space shuttle.”’

In pretrial preparations, prosecutors have been working to simplify everything.

They’ve dropped racketeering charges, which have stupefying legal points and subpoints. They also dismissed all charges against Blagojevich’s brother and co-defendant, Robert Blagojevich, allowing them to focus entirely on the former governor.

They even sought to edit out what they consider irrelevant chitchat on hours of FBI wiretap recordings, evidence at the heart of the government case, including a reference in one conversation to Blagojevich’s famously bountiful locks.

“They’ve been like a ship tossing excess baggage overboard to get through a storm,” said David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

 

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