CHICAGO – Jurors deliberating for a fifth day at the retrial of Rod Blagojevich asked for direction Thursday in just how to assess several charges, most of which relate to allegations that the impeached Illinois governor sought to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
A note from them, read in court by Judge James Zagel, asked for clarification about language in their instructions on dealing with ten counts of wire fraud. Eight of those have to do with the Senate seat — the most notorious allegation against Blagojevich.
Approximately 70 pages of instructions were turned over to jurors as they began deliberating last week. They serve as a roadmap for how the 11 women and one man should go about evaluating testimony and other evidence from the trial.
The note is just the second from the jury since deliberations began. The first earlier this week simply asked about extra pages that appeared in a transcript of FBI wiretaps, recordings that underpinned the government case.
It's almost impossible to determine whether such jury notes bode well for a defendant or not, said Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago defense attorney with no link to the case.
"Whenever I get jury notes, I think, 'This could be good for me,'" said Pissetzky, who represents clients in federal court. "Then five minutes later, I'm thinking, 'This could really be bad.' Who knows?"
Zagel, too, seemed flummoxed. He told attorneys he wasn't sure what jurors didn't understand. He eventually decided to send a note back telling them to go through the instruction again, then — if they still needed help — to send another note specifying the words or phrases they didn't get.
Jurors went home Thursday without sending a third note. They planned to take Friday off and resume Monday, according to the clerk of the federal court, Michael Dobbins.
As Zagel talked through what his response to the jurors should be, he said he didn't want to simply tell them to keep reading the instructions.
"The subtext is — 'You idiots,'" Zagel said about the message he did not want to impart.
The section that likely stumped jurors, he said, explained that prosecutors had to prove that any scheme to defraud involved "a materially false and fraudulent pretense, representation, promise or concealment."
"They are very difficult concepts," Pissetzky said. He added that there has been debate for years about altering such jury instructions so panelists can understand them more easily.
Blagojevich, 54, faces 20 counts, including attempted extortion and soliciting bribes. He testified for seven days and denied all the allegations. If found guilty on all the counts, he faces up to 350 years in prison, though guidelines would dictate he get far less.
Jurors at his first trial deliberated for 14 days, but ended up deadlocked on all but one count — convicting Blagojevich of lying to the FBI. He faces a maximum five-year prison sentence for that conviction no matter the outcome of the retrial.