If you were in the driver's seat of the Rod Blagojevich defense team, who would you pick to sit on the former governor's jury?
How about the woman who worked for the Illinois Department of Public Health, a state agency? Or the young Hispanic woman who said her brother had once been arrested for being a gang banger and felt wiretapping was an invasion of privacy? Would you take the 60ish man who was born in Great Britain and said he had "strong opinions" about politics? What about the middle-aged white woman who said it would be difficult not to talk about the case at home, as the trial progressed?
Jury selection continues Monday morning, and could be completed by midday Tuesday. But it is a slow, tedious process.
Candidates are ushered into the courtroom one at a time, and questioned by the judge, as attorneys for the defense and prosecution take copious notes, armed with lengthy questionnaires filled out by the prospective jurors in advance. The attorneys themselves are not allowed to ask questions. The defendant sits with his lawyers, writing notes himself and keeping close attention to the Illinoisans he once served as governor, who will now determine whether he goes to prison or remains free.
At various stages, (with no jury candidates present), the judge calls the lawyers to the front of the courtroom, and asks them to argue which jurors they want stricken from the pool due to potential bias. One middle-aged African American woman said her religious views would make it very difficult for her to sit in judgment of another person. She was excused.
An older white woman, the one from the health department, said she reads the newspaper, watches plenty of news, listens to NPR and "liberal talk radio," and heard a lot about the case at the indictment phase. She said most of what she knew, however, came from "Jay Leno jokes."
A man who once served on a federal grand jury remained in the pool, even though the defense argued, "this person probably has been tainted more than any other juror," because of his previous service at the indictment phase of a federal case.
A woman of Croatian descent was excused. Blagojevich's family was Serbian, and apparently the judge agreed that this courtroom was not the venue to try and overcome centuries of enmity between the two groups. One woman said she didn't know if she could remain unbiased, and on top of that, she had memory problems. "Welcome to the club!" Judge Zagel said.
The defense took issue with a Chicago Reader employee, who wrote on his questionnaire, "I already believe Blagojevich to be guilty." Under questioning by the judge, the man said he could base his decision only on what he heard in court, and the defense's objections were overruled.
Everyone agreed to bounce a young man who had gone out of his way to give answers on his questionnaire, virtually guaranteeing he would be excused. Zagel was outraged, and said were it not for confidentiality guarantees he had ordered himself, he would publish the young man's dossier to make an example of him.
There's the sheriff's deputy who keeps reptiles, and watches Lifetime movies with his wife; a TSA employee who builds model ships; a former nurse who describes herself as a "professional volunteer;" an Asian-American retiree who was born in a detention camp during World War II.
The judge said he is aiming for a pool of 40 potential jurors. After that, each side can exercise what are known as "peremptory challenges," where they can ask that prospective jurors be stricken without having to give a reason. The combined defense teams for Rod and Robert Blagojevich can exercise 13 such challenges. The prosecution gets 9. Both sides are aiming for 18 acceptable candidates, 12 jurors and 6 alternates, who will hear the evidence.
The judge said if the current pace continues, he expects to have a jury seated by noon Tuesday, and told both sides to prepare their opening statements for Tuesday afternoon. That provoked the one moment of high drama on Friday. The Blagojevich defense team asked the judge if the former Governor and his wife could be granted a furlough Tuesday afternoon to attend their daughter's grammar school graduation. The judge refused, saying it would send the wrong message to the jury. He did say that if both sides worked hard and started early on Tuesday, he might be convinced to dismiss court early. Such a scenario does not seem likely, however, in a case where opening statements are certain to stretch for many hours.
Upon hearing the judge's ruling, Patti Blagojevich burst into tears.
This post was updated from its initial version to reflect a headline change and additional information about the prospective jurors.