UPDATED: 4/26/2011 7:54 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS/WBBM) – The judge in the retrial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Tuesday that it appears opening statements could begin on Monday, while attorneys wrap up jury selection this week.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel questioned 23 more potential jurors on Tuesday and dismissed 11 of them from the jury pool. Over three days of questioning, about 35 jurors have survived an initial round of challenges. Zagel wants a pool of 40 such jurors before that list is whittled down to 12 jurors and six alternates.
At the end of the day, he told attorneys in the case that it appeared opening statements would begin on Monday, but he left the door open to begin sooner.
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One of the potential jurors Zagel questioned on Tuesday has worked at Children’s Memorial Hospital, which prosecutors contend was the target of one of Blagojevich’s alleged shakedown attempts. The former governor is accused of trying to squeeze the hospital’s CEO for a campaign donation in exchange for releasing additional state funding for the hospital.
The man, Juror 159, said that he followed the Blagojevich case “moderately” during the first trial and that he and his co-workers would discuss the Children’s Memorial allegations. But he told the judge that nothing he knows about the case would prevent him from being a fair and impartial juror. He was later dismissed from the jury pool.
Another potential juror, Juror 163, has been an assistant Cook County prosecutor for nearly eight years. The woman works in the felony review unit, where she reviews evidence presented by police to determine if felony charges are warranted against a suspect.
The woman said she thinks her work on the felony review unit would be similar to serving as a juror, as she must make a decision based only on the available evidence.
She said she avoids forming opinions on something without seeing all the evidence and feels people “seem ignorant” when they do otherwise.
The judge kept her in the jury pool over objections from defense attorneys. He noted that working on the felony review unit is very similar to working on a jury, because in both cases, a person is supposed to examine the available evidence to determine if there is proof of guilt.
Zagel also allowed a woman who sells real estate in Elmhurst to stay in the jury pool, even though she said “it would probably take a strong case on Mr. Blagojevich’s part to convince me that he were not guilty,” said one female potential juror. After some more questioning by the judge, the woman, Juror 170, later said she could put her opinions aside if she were picked for the jury.
On the other hand, Zagel dismissed Juror 171, a woman who indicated on her jury form that she believes Blagojevich is innocent.
The judge said he did not believe that woman’s statements and thought she was tying to say anything she could to get out of jury service because she was worried about her own financial situation and her husband’s health. The woman is working two part time jobs, but works only 23 hours a week, and indicated her husband has significant health problems.
Earlier in the day, another juror told the judge about his past work as a media relations representative for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. While he was there, the chamber co-hosted one of the gubernatorial debates during Blagojevich’s first run for governor in 2002.
He told the judge that he mostly just handled media relations for the debate. The man said he hasn’t worked for the chamber for nearly 10 years now, and believes his work there wouldn’t affect his ability to serve on a jury.
That man also said on his questionnaire that he followed the first trial and based on what he knows, he believes Blagojevich is guilty and “has a different private persona and a fake public persona.” The man also indicated that he resented that Blagojevich rarely spent time in Springfield as governor.
But he tried to assure the judge that he could put those opinions of Blagojevich aside and judge the case fairly, based only on the evidence presented in court.
“We’re supposed to look at the facts of this actual situation, so despite my opinion, I don’t believe it would be” a problem to be fair and impartial, he said.
Defense attorneys sought to have him dismissed from the jury pool, but Zagel said he believed the man could be fair and impartial.
For several of the potential jurors who have been questioned on Tuesday, spending time in a courtroom is certainly not a new experience. Two of the potential jurors have been on a jury before, one sued a contractor over a construction dispute and another filed at least two lawsuits in small claims courts.
One man, Juror 156, said he has twice been to small claims court. Once was when he sued a contractor who refused to finish a kitchen remodeling job even after being paid a good deal of money. The other case was when he sued his auto insurance company after his car was damaged in a car wash. Both cases were settled out of court.
That man was eventually dismissed from the jury, as he indicated he had an extensive knowledge of the case already and even offered a critique of the prosecution’s strategy, writing on his questionnaire that he would have tried the case differently.
Another potential juror, Juror 155, said he went to law school for a year in the 1960s, but “my heart wasn’t really in it.” He said he was “more involved in my college fraternity and chasing women.”
That man was also the victim of an assault when he was in college, when a group of teens attacked him and a friend, demanding they pay for the teens’ fast food. When he refused, one of the teens punched him in the face. The man testified against his attacker in court and the young man was convicted and sentenced to probation.
Zagel dismissed him from the jury pool, calling him a “loose cannon” who admitted he doesn’t get along with others. The judge said he was concerned the man would be a disruption in the jury room.
He also once served as the foreman of a jury in a criminal trial and successfully reached a verdict.
Another potential juror, Juror 151, said he once served on a grand jury for three months in 1998.
That man, who works in public health education for a county government, told the judge he was worried about serving on a jury for a long trial because he has two toddlers and he is usually responsible for picking them up from daycare, because his schedule is more flexible than his wife’s.
He also said his 2 ½-year-old son will soon be starting speech therapy and the therapists have advised that he and his wife be present for the therapy sessions.
Another potential juror, Juror 154, has also been the victim of a number of minor crimes, including breaking and entering and car theft. He also once sued a home-builder over a construction dispute and won the case, but never got the money he was owed.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed to dismiss him from the jury for financial hardship reasons.
Tuesday afternoon, the judge heard from a potential juror who wrote on his questionnaire that he believes Blagojevich should take the stand during the retrial.
Zagel said the potential juror, Juror 169, wrote that he believes after all of the media attention that has been focused on the case and all of Blagojevich’s repeated media appearances, “he owes the people of Illinois an explanation. He should take the stand and explain.”
The man, a shipping clerk, also said that he’s read most of the transcripts of FBI wiretaps played for jurors at the first trial and read a lot of news accounts of the first trial, so he’s not sure he’d be able to distinguish what he already knows about the case from what he hears in court at the second trial.
“It would be hard to sort out,” he said. “There are so many things involved in here, I don’t know that I can forget all these things I know and concentrate only on the things I heard in court.”
He was dismissed from the jury pool
Opening statements appear likely to begin by the end of the week.
Among other charges, Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell or trade an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama in 2008.
CBS 2 Web Producer Todd Feurer contributed to this report.