Published June 28, 2011
CHICAGO – Stunned and nearly speechless after hearing the verdicts against him, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich will wake up Tuesday to the stark reality that he is likely headed to federal prison within months, leaving behind his wife, two young daughters and comfortable home in a leafy Chicago neighborhood.
A jury convicted him Monday on 17 charges, including trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old Senate seat and attempting to shake down executives for campaign cash. The convictions carry a combined maximum prison sentence of around 300 years, but legal experts say a federal judge is likely to send him away for around a decade, give or take a few years.
An irrepressible Blagojevich had said before the retrial began that he refused to even contemplate the prospect of prison. But red-eyed, his face drawn and frowning, he hurried out of the courthouse after the verdict was read.
The broke and impeached ex-governor told reporters that he and his wife, Patti, "have to get home to our little girls and talk to them and explain things to them and then try to sort things out." His two daughters are 8 and 14.
Uncharacteristically, the 54-year-old Democrat had little more to say, adding only that he was stunned by the verdict.
"Well, among the many lessons I've learned from this whole experience is to try to speak a little bit less, so I'm going to keep my remarks kind of short," Blagojevich said.
He is almost certain to appeal the convictions, and his defense attorneys filed a number of motions to lay the groundwork for that.
If he does end up in prison, Blagojevich would follow a path well-trodden by Illinois governors, including Blagojevich's predecessor, former Republican Gov. George Ryan — now serving 6½ years in a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.
In Illinois's book of political infamy, though, Blagojevich's chapter may go down as the most ignominious because of the allegations he effectively tried to hock an appointment to Obama's Senate seat for campaign cash or a job.
Blagojevich will probably receive around 10 years in prison, with little chance he would get more than 15, said former Chicago-based federal prosecutor Jeff Cramer said. Another former prosecutor, Phil Turner, said Judge James Zagel might look to Ryan's sentence and mete out a similar one for Blagojevich.
Zagel did not set a sentencing date, but Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago attorney who defends clients in federal court, said it's likely Blagojevich would be sentenced late this year. When he is, Pissetzky said there is a chance he could end up serving in the same prison as George Ryan.
The verdict, coming after his first trial ended last year with the jury deadlocked on most charges, was a bitter defeat for Blagojevich, who spent 2½ years professing his innocence on reality TV shows and later on the witness stand. His defense team insisted that hours of FBI wiretap recordings were just the ramblings of a politician who liked to think out loud.
After hearing the verdict, Blagojevich turned to defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky and asked "What happened?" His wife, Patti, slumped against her brother, then rushed into her husband's arms.
Before the decision was read, the couple looked flushed, and the former governor blew his wife a kiss across the courtroom, then stood expressionless, with his hands clasped tightly.
The verdict capped a long-running spectacle in which Blagojevich became famous for blurting on a recorded phone call that his ability to appoint Obama's successor to the Senate was "f---ing golden" and that he wouldn't let it go "for f---ing nothing."
The case exploded into scandal when Blagojevich was awakened by federal agents on Dec. 9, 2008, at his Chicago home and was led away in handcuffs. Federal prosecutors had been investigating his administration for years, and some of his closest cronies had already been convicted.
Blagojevich was swiftly impeached and removed from office.
The verdict provided affirmation to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, one of the nation's most prominent prosecutors, who, after the governor's arrest, had condemned Blagojevich's dealings as a "political corruption crime spree."
The key question for the jury was whether to accept the defense suggestion that Blagojevich's activities amounted to "the kind of political wheeling and dealing that is common in Illinois and around the country."
"That," said Fitzgerald, his voice rising, "couldn't be any further from the truth. ... Selling a Senate seat, shaking down a children's hospital and squeezing a person to give money before you sign a bill that benefits them is not a gray area. It's a crime."
Fitzgerald pledged to retry the governor after the first jury failed to reach a decision on all but the least serious of 24 charges against him.
The jury voted to convict on 17 of 20 counts after deliberating nine days heading into Monday. Blagojevich also faces up to five additional years in prison for his previous conviction of lying to the FBI; Pissetzky said Zagel would almost certainly sentence Zagel for all the convictions at once.
Judges have enormous discretion in sentencing and can factor in a host of variables, including whether a defendant took the stand and lied. Prosecutors have said that Blagojevich did just that.
Blagojevich was acquitted of soliciting bribes in the alleged shakedown of a road-building executive. The jury deadlocked on two charges of attempted extortion related to that executive and funding for a school.
Zagel has barred Blagojevich from traveling outside the area without permission. A status hearing to discuss sentencing was set for Aug. 1.
All 12 jurors — 11 women and one man — spoke to reporters after the verdict, identifying themselves only by juror numbers. Their full names were to be released Tuesday.
Jurors said the evidence that Blagojevich tried to secure a high-paying, high-powered position in exchange for the appointment of Obama's successor in the Senate was the clearest in the case.
"There was so much more evidence to go on," said Juror No. 140. Jury members said they listened and re-listened to recordings of Blagojevich's phone conversations with aides. They also acknowledged finding the former governor likable.
"He was personable," Juror No. 103 said. "It made it hard to separate what we actively had to do as jurors."
Richard Kling, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law who watched much of the trial, said the defense had no choice but to put Blagojevich on the stand, even though doing so was risky.
"The problem was with some of his explanations," Kling said. "It reminded me of a little kid who gets his hand caught in a cookie jar. He says, 'Mommy I wasn't taking the cookies. I was just trying to protect them and to count them.'"
Associated Press Writer Don Babwin contributed to this report.