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Deconstructing the Blago Verdict

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Deconstructing the Blago Verdict


Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich speaks to the media at the Federal Courthouse Monday, June 27, 2011 in Chicago. Blagojevich has been convicted of 17 of the 20 charges against him, including all 11 charges related to his attempt to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat. At right is his wife Patti.

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Throughout his days as governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich liked to say he was “getting things done for people.”  People: They were the catch-all term for an electorate which catapulted Blagojevich to stunning victories time after time, including two trips to the governor’s mansion (albeit, a mansion he rarely visited).

Twelve of those “people” handed Blagojevich a stunning defeat Monday, convicting him on 17 counts which carry a maximum sentence of 300 years in prison.

Federal sentences are almost always served concurrently, and most experts believe the former governor’s eventual sentence will be closer to 10 years than three centuries. But his rejection at the hands of the very same people who re-elected him was impossible to escape. 

What happened? Those closest to Blagojevich insist he never lost sight of the voters who turned out in droves to send him to the general assembly, then Congress and twice to the governor’s office.

“He really has a feeling for the underdog,” said Blagojevich’s former defense attorney Sam Adam Jr., who described himself as “devastated” by the verdicts. “He really has a feeling and a love, for the people of Illinois.”

Indeed, Blagojevich came across as disarmingly charming on the witness stand, often addressing his self-effacing answers straight to jurors as his inquisitors fired away. Many of the jurors said in their post-trial press conference that he did come across as intensely likeable on the stand.

But then there were the tapes. Hundreds, upon hundreds of hours, of tapes.

“Jurors really don’t like to hear different people,” said jury expert Bill Healy, vice-president of the Chicago trial consulting firm DecisionQuest. “If your character is different on the tapes when you didn’t know people were watching, and then suddenly you’re somebody else when you did know people were watching, they kind of find that false, fake, phony and possibly … lying.”

Healy said studies of jurors have shown there are different levels of credibility when defendants take the stand. And likeability takes a back seat to trustworthiness on that scale.

“They can say, ‘I really don’t like that person on the stand, but I trust that they’re telling me the truth,’” Healy said. “Or, they can say, ‘I really like that guy, but boy the things he did!’ So likeability can’t win it all. You can’t charm them to death in the jury room. It doesn’t work.”

Jury forewoman Connie Wilson of Naperville seemed to confirm that analysis. “You want to see him as a human being who happens to be in politics,” Wilson said. “In his heart, he obviously has done some wonderful things. At some point you have to step back from that, and start looking at the evidence.”

Wilson suggested that jurors genuinely wanted to like the governor, but the tapes weighed heavily in turning the tide in the government’s favor.

“You’d hear him step over the line, and that was what started showing up in the evidence,” she said. “The tapes were obviously very damaging.”

Still, many experts say putting Blagojevich on the stand was a logical move for the defense.

“I think it was a logical decision,” said law professor “Richard Kling, of the Chicago Kent College of Law.  “I think generally, defense lawyers don’t put clients on if they think they are going to win the case.”

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