UPDATED 04/27/11 7:55 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – Jury selection was nearly completed Wednesday in the corruption retrial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich as more than 40 potential jurors have been deemed qualified. The judge said only a few more need to be questioned before the final step of seating a jury.
U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel has said he wanted 40 qualified jurors before attorneys make their peremptory challenges, which can be made for any reason, to whittle the list down to 12 jurors and six alternates.
Even though Zagel said Wednesday afternoon that they’ve already narrowed down the jury pool to 42 qualified candidates, he wants to question 15 more jurors who have filled out questionnaires before making a final decision.
The judge said he expects to begin opening statements next week.
Among those knocked out of the jury pool on Wednesday was a woman who has four tickets to one of the final tapings of the Oprah Winfrey Show next month. Zagel initially seemed willing to consider slightly adjusting the trial schedule to allow her to attend even if she were picked for the jury, but on Wednesday he decided to excuse her from the jury.
After court, Blagojevich said “I’m very happy that that juror was dismissed,” saying it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her to attend one of Oprah’s last shows.
Asked if he’d describe the woman’s tickets as “golden,” Blagojevich grinned and said, “I’d say they’re effing golden,” a nod to the infamous wiretap of him referring to President Barack Obama’s vacant senate seat as “f***ing golden.”
Other potential jurors removed from the pool on Wednesday were a high school maintenance worker who said he “doesn’t trust most politicians,” a woman who owns a pet-sitting business and worried that serving on a long trial would be too costly and a retired printer who said he avoids reading the news because “I printed that stuff all my life, I really don’t need to look at it anymore.”
One person that Zagel kept in the jury pool is a woman who schedules arbitration hearings for civil cases in Kane County and wrote on her jury questionnaire that she knows about 350 jurors “fairly well.” Zagel joked that she’d broken the record for the largest number of lawyers a potential juror claims to have known.
The woman told Zagel that, based on what she knows about the Blagojevich case, “I think he’s guilty of trying to sell a position.”
Defense attorneys sought to have her dismissed, but Zagel said he was confident that she could be fair after he explained the rules of serving on a jury and because her opinion was clearly based only on what other people had told her about the case.
Blagojevich’s lawyers also wanted to get rid of a potential juror who is a federal probation officer who works at the Dirksen federal courthouse. They said they were concerned that the only criminal defendants she has experience working with are those who already have been convicted and that might influence her judgment.
But Zagel dismissed that notion, pointing out that probation officers often recommend sentences that prosecutors disagree with.
Another potential juror said her husband once did volunteer work for Blagojevich when he was running for Congress. She said her husband mostly answered phone calls for the campaign and put up campaign signs and he hasn’t discussed the matter with her much. Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys objected to keeping her in the jury pool.
The judge also declined to dismiss a potential juror who has been on disability for five or six years after having back surgery and said he was worried about paying for transportation to the courthouse. Zagel noted that travel costs shouldn’t be an issue, as the court pays jurors $40 a day for jury duty.
The man also discussed a short criminal history, including a conviction for burglary from a freight train box car about 30 years ago and an arrest for stabbing his brother in a domestic abuse, which he claimed was an act of self-defense.
When the judge asked him what he does with his time since he can’t work, the man said he does chores and spends a lot of time watching old TV shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gunsmoke,” because it “brings back a lot of memories.”
Meantime, a familiar face returned to the courtroom before jury selection resumed Wednesday morning. Sam Adam Jr., who led Blagojevich’s defense team for the first trial, stopped by the courtroom, joking with spectators and media that he was there to deliver the opening statement for the retrial.
Adam and his father, Sam Adam Sr., left the defense team after the first trial and the former governor is now represented by Sheldon Sorosky, Aaron Goldstein and Lauren Kaeseberg.
The Adams stepped down from the team in part because Blagojevich’s campaign fund, which was used to pay for his defense at the first trial, has dried up and his attorneys are now being paid with public funds.
Sorosky joked that Adam Jr. was actually at the federal courthouse because he has applied for a job with the FBI. Adam laughed and said his application was rejected immediately.
Outside of court, Adam said he would love to give the opening statement for Blagojevich’s retrial, but he thinks it’s best for his former client to move forward with his current slate of attorneys, in part because he clashed so often with Zagel at the first trial.
At that first trial, Blagojevich was convicted of one count of lying to the FBI, but the jury deadlocked on 23 other counts. He is being retried on 20 of those counts, including allegations he tried 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.