Blago ends 7-day testimony at corruption retrial
CHICAGO – Twice-elected Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich ended the most important campaign of his life Tuesday, stepping down from the witness stand at his corruption retrial after speaking to jurors for seven days.
As he stepped off the stand, a jaunty Blagojevich tried to shake hands with lead prosecutor Reid Schar, but the government attorney turned away after the two had sparred for several days.
Judge James Zagel told jurors not to read anything into the rebuff, saying lawyers are instructed not to interact with witnesses.
In often long-winded answers, Blagojevich insisted throughout his testimony that he never sought to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for a top job or campaign cash, or ever tried to shake down executives for contributions.
He argued that his talk captured on FBI wiretaps was merely brainstorming, and that he never took the schemes seriously or decided to carry them out. And though the judge barred such arguments, Blagojevich claimed he'd believed his conversations were legal and part of common political discourse.
Jurors at times seemed captivated by the former governor, who owed at least part of his success as a never-defeated politician to his gift of gab. Other times their eyes roamed the courtroom as he wandered off on tangents about sports, his law school grades or his meetings with famous people.
They snapped to attention during a cross-examination that began with an explosive first question — "Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct?" — then sagged in their seats as the meticulous questioning dragged on and the tone turned from tense to merely testy.
As the case nears its end, the question was whether Blagojevich's gamble on testifying would pay off when the case gets to the jury.
Terry Sullivan, a former state's attorney who helped prosecute serial killer John Wayne Gacy and sat through much of Blagojevich's testimony, said the former governor did much better than expected.
"I don't think he was manhandled by the prosecution, although that might have been a strategy so that they didn't look like tyrants in front of the jury," he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar did work to use Blagojevich's own words on FBI wiretap recordings against him, a move Blagojevich angrily objected to Tuesday.
"With all respect Mr. Schar, you're twisting my words," he snapped.
Zagel said the defense plans to call two more witnesses Wednesday, when the government could be ready to deliver its closing arguments. The defense would then present its closing. Zagel said he expected jurors to begin deliberating as soon as Thursday.
Blagojevich left the courthouse Tuesday without speaking to reporters, though he did stop to shake hands with well-wishers outside. He hasn't spoken publicly since taking the stand.
The former governor's first trial last year ended with jurors deadlocked on all but one count. He was found guilty of lying to the FBI. He did not testify at that trial.
Sullivan said that with Blagojevich on the stand, his lawyer brought up several issues in their redirect to clear them up, and can now argue them to the jury at closing arguments.
He said he was surprised the prosecution didn't question Blagojevich again after the redirect, but said that also may have been a strategy to avoid giving the former governor a chance to reiterate points and perhaps persuade a juror.
The name of Chicago's new mayor Rahm Emanuel also arose again Tuesday.
Zagel refused a request Tuesday by defense attorneys to let them play a Nov. 8, 2008, call between Blagojevich and Emanuel to jurors, ruling it wasn't relevant to the case.
But later in the day, the defense filed a motion with the court that included a transcript of that call, the first time the contents of the conversation had been made public.
Emanuel, a U.S. representative at the time of the call, asks Blagojevich to consider appointing his choice as his successor in Congress as he leaves to become Obama's chief of staff. He mentions Forrest Claypool, a county official whom he says does not want the job for the long term.
Emanuel prefaces the conversation by saying he's seeking confirmation that such an appointment would be legal. Blagojevich says he would be "happy to appoint your guy" if he can do it. Emanuel says, "I will not forget this."
A special election is typically held when a congressional seat is vacated.
Emanuel is not accused of wrongdoing. Asked earlier Tuesday about testimony at Blagojevich's trial regarding the conversation, he said he answered all questions lawyers thought necessary when he testified for about five minutes last month. His spokeswoman echoed that comment later in the day.