It now appears that those who hoped to see Rod Blagojevich testify in his federal corruption trial are about to see their patience rewarded. Sources close to the former governor’s defense team say a decision has been made to put Blagojevich on the stand, in hopes of defusing the most damning charges against him.
All that the defense team said publicly, in open court, is that they do plan a defense, which will begin on Monday. Lead counsel Sheldon Sorosky told Judge James Zagel that the witness list would include “people of some prominence.” And while some of those individuals might be reluctant to take part, Zagel said he would be “unsympathetic” to anyone who tries to avoid an appearance.
The previous witness list from the prior trial included names like Rahm Emanuel, Jesse Jackson Jr., and Valerie Jarrett. Their subpoenas carried over into the second trial. But the witness the public would be lining up to see would be the defendant himself.
“This is the whole ball of wax,” says trial consultant William Healy. “It doesn’t matter what the prosecution said. It doesn’t matter what other defense witnesses say. [The jury] wants to hear from his mouth, ‘I didn’t do it.’”
But the decision to put Blagojevich in line for a potentially withering cross examination by federal prosecutors carries substantial risk.
“Exactly,” says Healy. “And what he’s got to learn is that you can’t win there. He likes to win. You can only get through it and get by. If he tries to win, he’ll lose.”
Still, Healy, vice president of the trial consulting firm Decisionquest, says putting Blagojevich on the stand could be a risk worth taking. After all, the former governor enjoyed a career in the Illinois House, the U.S. Congress and two terms as governor, courtesy of what can be a fickle Illinois electorate.
The real challenge, he says, will be for Blagojevich to resist the urge to perform as a politician on the stand.
“Stick to your message,” he says he would advise a client of Blagojevich’s notoriety. “Keep it short. Don’t try to tell your whole story.”
There is another, less subjective risk: testifying could actually add time to the former governor’s sentence, if he is ultimately convicted.
“If you testify and you are found guilty, you will increase the sentencing guideline range against you,” says former prosecutor Ron Safer. “Therefore, you likely increase the sentence you will serve.”
The federal sentencing guidelines are advisory, not mandatory. But one of those advisories carries a two-level increase in sentence for obstruction of justice.
“So if the judge finds that the defendant did not tell the truth, and if the defendant says ‘I didn’t do this,’ and the jury says, ‘Yes you did,’ it’s very difficult for the judge to do anything, but that will tack on two levels,” says Safer. “Which is about another year to the sentence.”
The former governor offered no comment as he left court Thursday. Wife Patti spoke on his behalf at day’s end.
“The entire time that he was governor, I was so proud of the way he faithfully discharged his duties,” she said. “I saw how he woke up every day to fight hard for the people of Illinois.”
While defense lawyers apparently believe putting Blagojevich on the stand is worth the risk, such decisions are subject to change. During his first trial, the former governor repeatedly declared his intention to testify. But at the end of the prosecution’s case, he said the government had not proven the charges, and he and his lawyers opted to present no defense.
The jury in that case was able to reach a verdict on only a single charge.