Blagojevich in Shadow of Famous Capone Trial

Thursday, Jun 10, 2010  |  Updated 10:45 PM CDT
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Blago's Trial wasn't the first nor will it probably be the last trial to gain world wide attention.  You might remember a little know figure named Al Capone who gardnered everybody's attention

Blago's Trial wasn't the first nor will it probably be the last trial to gain world wide attention. You might remember a little know figure named Al Capone who gardnered everybody's attention

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The Rod Blagojevich criminal proceeding at the Dirksen Federal Building may be the trial of the century, but this century is only 10 years old.

The biggest trial in Chicago history just may have been the one which took place in 1931, directly across the street from the spot where the former governor takes the long walk every morning.

It was Al Capone.

"It was phenomenal," said Jonathan Eig, author of the new account of that trial, "Get Capone." "This was the battle the city had been waiting years for."

Indeed, Capone's reign over Chicago's underworld had been the worst kept secret in America, so much so that Eig says every morning, President Herbert Hoover would ask aides what they were doing to bring Capone to justice.

"Chicago had always had a bittersweet relationship with Capone," Eig explained.  "They knew he was bad for the city's image. They knew he was a brutal killer. But they also knew he was supplying folks with the booze they were all drinking, and it'd be hypocritical to completely denounce the man."

Capone made no secret of his profession. He was not shy and did frequent interviews; especially with pretty female reporters.

"That's right! You could see Capone on the street," said Eig. "In fact, if you were a tourist and came to Chicago, when you came back home, everyone said, 'Did you see Capone?'"

By now the story of how Capone's decade-long reign over Chicago was brought to an end is well known; that it was the taxman who eventually brought him to justice. What few remember, however, is that the crime boss agreed to plead guilty.

"They said, we'll take the deal because they were really worried their evidence against Capone was so weak, that he could walk; that the jury would let him go," said Eig. "Capone started bragging, 'I got two and a half years; I can do that. That's no big deal. I can do two and a half years standing on my head!"

It was the judge himself who refused to accept the plea deal, forcing Scarface Al to go to trial after all.

"The judge threw it out," says Eig. "[He] threw it out after everybody had signed off on it. I think he might have gotten pressure from the President, Herbert Hoover. There is some evidence to suggest that Hoover sent an emissary to Chicago to meet with the judge, James Wilkerson, on the eve of the trial, and made it clear that the president wanted to see a trial."

News coverage was immense. Reporters came from all over America to see what they believed would be a titanic legal struggle. Special telegraph lines were strung to beam the news worldwide. Famed reporter Damon Runyon came from New York. Even Edward G. Robinson, who was preparing to play a very Capone-like character in the movies, visited the court to eyeball the famous gangster.

"It's the morning of the trial. You've got cars lined up with cameras perched atop them. You've got newspaper photographers with their big boxy cameras and their flashbulbs perched atop that. You've got hundreds of Chicagoans lined up, to see Capone," said Eig.

The prosecution didn't have much to work with. After all, they had little proof of Capone's income.

"They proved he had assets. That he must have had money to spend so lavishly," said Eig.

So proseuctors brought in everyone they could: Capone's butcher, clerks from Marshall Field's, anyone who could testify to the fact that the crime boss lived like a king.

"It was a completely circumstantial case. They were asking the jury to take it on faith that if he's spending all this money, he must be getting all this money from somewhere," said Eig.

The trial lasted less than a week in the grand Chicago Federal Building, which is directly across the street from the current federal courthouse where Rod Blagojevich is standing trial. Capone was convicted on five of the 23 counts he had faced. He was sentenced to 11 years.

"He was clearly a guy who liked the attention and the spotlight," says Eig. "When that hammer came down and he heard the sentence was 11 years, it was a heavy blow for him. I don't think he ever saw it coming," said Eig.

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