Blago Trial: A Day of Slap Downs and Sidebars
It was a day of lectures, warnings and slap downs Wednesday as the judge tightened his fist around attorneys in the retrial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The courtroom drama happened after a defense cross examination, during which prosecutors objected, over and over again. Prosecutors then complained to Judge James Zagel that defense questions were improper, and that the jury was writing them down as if they were facts in the corruption case.
The jury was asked to leave the room while Judge Zagel spent several minutes admonishing Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky about his questioning techniques, calling them "abusive," and saying the questioning must change or he will cut it off.
When Sorosky tried to object, Zagel sternly told him, "I don't want to hear you speak about it, I want to see you do it". "But" Sorosky protested, "if I could just say something," "No!" Zagel firmly responded. "Lawyers make an argument and I make a ruling". Afterwards Zagel reminded the jury that "questions from lawyers are not facts".
That was pretty much how most of the day went, with brief questioning or cross examination of witnesses, followed by several minutes of sidebar "discussion" with the judge and attorneys.
Blagojevich's close friend and chief of staff Alonzo "Lon" Monk was brought to the stand to testify about how he helped Blagojevich cook up schemes to shake down a racetrack owner for a large campaign contribution. He also admitted that he pocketed tens of thousands of dollars in illegal cash payments that he got from a fundraiser. Monk has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to solicit a bribe.
Backing up Monk's testimony was racetrack owner John Johnston, who testified under immunity that Monk pressured him to raise funds or give "a contribution" to the governor, in exchange for the Blagojevich's approval of a bill that would give subsidies to the financially ailing racetrack industry. Johnston claims he was led to believe if he didn't play along there would be "a delay in the bill signing or possibly no signature at all." Halfway through testimony, another long sidebar was called.
The impeached former Illinois governor is in the third week of his retrial for allegedly trying to sell or barter for the U.S. Senate seat left empty when Barack Obama became president. The first trial ended with only a conviction for Blagojevich lying to federal agents. The jury was hung on the other charges.
Prosecutors are down to their last few witnesses and are expected to rest Thursday. Then the defense will have to decide what it wants to do. If the defense doesn't call any witnesses, the jury could begin deliberating early next week.
The thought among some courtroom observers is that defense attorneys may be stalling, stretching out cross examination of witnesses in order to get more time for a decision.