Ex-Marines, knitter among jurors at former Illinois Gov. Blagojevich's corruption trial
CHICAGO – CHICAGO (AP) — A former Marine severely injured serving in the Middle East, a voracious reader of knitting magazines and a man born in a U.S. internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II.
They are among the 12 jurors and six alternates selected this week to listen to months of sometimes convoluted, sometimes sensational testimony at the corruption trial of Illinois' big-haired former governor, Rod Blagojevich.
How the seven men and eleven women will process what they see and hear in the wood-paneled courtroom could determine whether the impeached leader and recent reality-show star follows previous Illinois governors to federal prison.
"The makeup of the jury can be extremely critical," said Michael Helfand, a Chicago-based attorney who is following the trial closely but is not connected to the case. "All it takes is just one holdout — and the outcome could be a hung jury at least."
Blagojevich, 53, is accused of scheming to profit from his power to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama and of trying to squeeze people for campaign contributions. He has pleaded not guilty to 24 counts that include attempted extortion and bribery. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 415 years in prison, though just how long he could spend behind bars would depend on complex calculations by a judge.
Forecasting about how jurors might vote is an inexact science, not least of all because the judge refused to release their names and revealed only scant biographical details during juror selection. Attorneys and courtroom observers are usually left extrapolating based on stereotypes.
Several former servicemen are on the panel, including ex-Marines and a Naval officer who once worked aboard a destroyer.
"The Navy guy — you'd think the prosecution would like him because he's conservative," said Helfand. "The lady who likes to knit — your stereotype might be that she'd go along with what others say."
At least some in the jury box once held government jobs, including a one-time postman and a retired Illinois public health department official. There's an avid runner, too, whose favorite pastime is something she shares with Blagojevich, a veteran marathoner.
Perhaps the most intriguing juror is the Japanese-American man born in one of the internment camps that more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were sent to after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. As an adult, he also served in the U.S. Marines.
"You might think he has hard feelings toward the government," Helfand said. "But he was in the military. I don't know who he might favor."
For his part, the no-nonsense presiding judge, James Zagel, instructed jurors to put aside any preconceived opinions and draw conclusions on the evidence alone. Their duty, he told them, wasn't to decide "whether you like, dislike or approve or disapprove of" Blagojevich.
But that's easier said than done, particularly with someone with as big a personality as Blagojevich.
That character was on display even inside the courtroom, in full view of jurors, as he appeared to mutter something and roll his eyes as a key prosecution witness painted a picture of subterfuge and greed in Blagojevich's inner circle as governor.
Prosecutors complained that some jurors noticed his expressions of disapproval, and the judge ordered Blagojevich to stop.
The impeached governor may even have been trying to affect potential jurors for months, popping up on early morning radio, late-night TV and on the TV reality show, "The Celebrity Apprentice."
Perhaps aware that future jurors might be watching, he often appeared to go out of his way to be affable and non-confrontational on "Celebrity Apprentice" — a theory proposed by host Donald Trump himself before firing Blagojevich and booting him from the show.
It can also work in favor of the defense or prosecution if lead attorneys for either side can get jurors to like them. That edge could go to Blagojevich.
While most jurors sat expressionless early in the trial, some appeared rapt during opening statements by one attorney for Blagojevich, the flamboyant Sam Adam Jr. The burly 37-year-old shouted, whispered, laughed and poked fun at himself in a riveting, often theatrical opening.
In telling jurors his client would take the stand, the bespectacled attorney's voice rose as he said about Blagojevich, "He's not gonna let some chubby, four-eyed lawyer do his talking for him."
But any initial good feeling for either Blagojevich or his attorney could dissipate over the course of a trial that's expected to last more than three months — making it more likely, Helfand said, that prosecutors' cool, just-the-facts approach may prevail in the end.
"These jurors, God bless them, are hearing this case at the start of summer — at the nicest time of the year in Chicago," said Helfand. "Any preconceived notions in Blagojevich's favor now may be worn down by the fall."