Quiet Start To Second Blagojevich Trial
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UPDATED 04/20/11 6:10 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – In stark contrast to the first trial, the first day of former Rod. Blagojevich’s retrial started quietly on Wednesday at the Dirksen Federal Building, with all of the action taking place behind closed doors.
About 150 potential jurors were brought in on Wednesday to begin filling out a 38-page questionnaire in a jury room, in order to begin weeding out anyone who might have already developed a strong opinion on the case against Blagojevich.
As CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole reports, those questions will not be made public until after the jury is seated. Court officials also will black out some questions related to specific witnesses who will be mentioned at the trial and might be called to testify.
No public hearings were held on Wednesday and Blagojevich was not at the courthouse. One member of his defense team did show up briefly in a courtroom cafeteria where several members of the media were spending their time waiting for any developments in the case, but most of the defense team was not at the courthouse early Wednesday.
Defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky and the rest of Blagojevich’s defense team visited the courthouse Wednesday evening to find out if they could begin reviewing those questionnaires before more extensive questioning begins Thursday morning.
“We want to know the background of the people and I think the government is in the same position as us. They hope to see those questionnaires also,” Sorosky said.
Sorosky wouldn’t give any clues as to what type of people the defense team is looking for to pick as potential jurors.
“Fair and impartial jurors; maybe newscasters, as they tend to be fair and impartial,” Sorosky joked.
Blagojevich spokesman Glenn Selig said the former governor will be in court on Thursday, when the judge begins questioning potential jurors in open court, a process that’s scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m.
Court spokesman Joel Daly said U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel hopes to wrap up jury selection by next Wednesday, with opening arguments beginning next Wednesday or Thursday.
LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s John Cody reports
The first day of Blagojevich’s first trial was much busier. Large crowds of spectators showed up early in the day to wait for Blagojevich’s arrival at the courthouse and both the main courtroom and an “overflow” courtroom provided to allow media and spectators listen to the proceedings were both filled to capacity throughout the day. Juror questioning last summer began on the afternoon of the first day.
The first trial ended eight months ago with jurors deadlocked on 23 of 24 counts against Blagojevich and the jury convicting him of only one count of lying to the FBI.
Some court watchers said there is also a larger issue at stake in the Blagojevich trial.
“I think every elected official needs to know what is political behavior and what is illegal behavior and this particular trial should give us a terrific indication if we get a clear verdict,” Better Government Association Executive Director Andy Shaw said. “The last trial never answered the basic question: did he break the law or was he just a bad governor?”
In the time since his last trial, Blagojevich has gone on the interview circuit multiple times, returned to fill in as a talk radio host, and even starred in a series of pistachio commercials.
Now, the ex-governor faces retrial on 20 counts, including allegations that he tried to sell President Barack Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat in 2008. Prosecutors dropped three other counts against him in an effort to make the case less complicated for the jury.
“The jurors in the last trial were utterly confused and found ther law and the charges and the verdict form very complicated,” said jury consultant Bill Grimes. “You talk about 24 different counts. They actually had to vote on probably 50 different questions and it was very difficult for them to sift through all that.”
As WBBM Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya reports, Grimes, of the law firm Zagnoli, McEvoy and Foley, says more than likely, federal prosecutors will look for potential jurors who have analytical skills–people who have served in the military or policing or even accounting.
LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya reports
He says the defense may look for people like teachers or social workers–people who are more emotional and who believe the kinds of things Rod Blagojevich is accused of goes on all the time in politics.
Grimes says there will be very few potential jurors who know nothing about the Blagojevich case, that a lot of people probably have become “somewhat jaded” by it all, but he says for the judge, it’ll be a matter of whether a potential juror can be fair in deliberations.
Meanwhile, prosecutors have since tried to simplify the case. They have dropped the most complicated charges against Blagojevich – one count of racketeering, one count of racketeering conspiracy and one count of wire fraud. But 20 other counts remain, so the case is still complicated, just not as much as before.
Even so, prosecutors are plotting a more focused case against Blagojevich at his second trial.
“They’re going to basically do a little cutting and pasting. They’ll take out what didn’t work. They’re going to double up on what did work and you’re going to probably see a leaner presentation on their part,” CBS 2 Legal Analyst Irv Miller said.
As for the defense team, Blagojevich’s dramatic attorney, Sam Adam Jr., who was known for butting heads with Judge Zagel, is gone. The more traditional Sheldon Sorosky is now at the helm.
Another difference at this trial is that Blagojevich will be the only defendant. All the charges against his brother, Robert, who was his co-defendant in the last trial, have been dropped.
Miller said he expects the trial will move quickly with the simplified case, and that Blagojevich will testify.
But he says a faster trial does not necessarily mean a more likely conviction.
“One juror may pick up something that nobody ever thought of… and it could go one way or the other,” he said.