For weeks, the federal judge overseeing Rod Blagojevich’s second corruption trial has sternly warned the former governor’s lawyers that if they wanted to introduce their theory of the case, they needed to do it with their client on the stand.
Today, the Blagojevich defense just may take the judge up on that offer.
Blagojevich could testify after a grueling day on Wednesday where the first two defense witnesses did little to buttress his case. The first, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., probably did more harm than good. The second, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, generally evoked yawns from spectators.
If Blagojevich takes the stand, it is a veritable Hail Mary for the defense.
“You do not put the defendant on the stand, unless you absolutely have to,” said jury consultant Bill Healy, who suggested that it is important at this point to assess the jury’s temperament.
“Angry jurors convict. The last time, we had confused jurors. This time, are they angry?”
Most observers believe the jury in this trial has been keenly focused on a government case that was tightly woven in its second act. But what they saw in the first day of the defense may have left them wondering whose case they were watching.
Emanuel was on the stand for just three minutes. During that time, he agreed that he never was contacted about alleged Blagojevich extortion attempts on the Senate seat or a northwest side school. The problem is, prosecutors never suggested that the money demands ever reached Emanuel. When it was time for cross-examination, the government asked no questions.
Of greater import was the appearance by Jackson. Throughout the trial, Blagojevich was heard on undercover tapes discussing promises of fundraising from Jackson intermediaries in exchange for a Senate seat appointment.
But in court, Jackson denied being behind any such attempts.
Defense lawyer Aaron Goldstein asked, “Did you ever request the Senate seat in exchange for fundraising?”
“No sir,” said Jackson, “I did not.”
“Did you ever tell anyone you would raise campaign contributions if you were appointed to the Senate seat?”
“Absolutely not!” said Jackson.
But on cross examination, Jackson recalled that after he refused to give a $25,000 campaign donation during Blagojevich’s first run for governor, and his wife Sandy was passed over for the job of state lottery director. A few months later, he said he encountered the new governor in Washington.
“The governor came up to me and said, ‘I’m sorry the thing with Sandy didn’t work out,’” Jackson recalled. Then, “in classic Elvis Presley fashion, he snapped both fingers, and said, ‘You should have given me that $25,000’.”
It was a bad moment for the defense, an episode from years ago, which sounded a lot like the current charges, against the former governor.
“You’ve got tons of tapes of him saying things,” said Healy. “Now you’ve got something even prior to this, with him saying, ‘Hey if you’d given me the money, you might have gotten a shot at getting that job’.”
“It does show intent. And that pattern of behavior is really helpful to the jury to say that he knew what he was doing.”
After court, Blagojevich called Jackson’s allegations, “baloney”.
“All I can tell you is, it’s absurd and completely not true. That never happened.”
Attorneys spent the balance of the day Wednesday arguing about tapes, which Blagojevich hopes to use in his defense. Judge James Zagel ruled most could not be played, unless Blagojevich takes the stand, and he suggested that even then, only a handful would be allowed.