Jurors weighing corruption charges against former Ill. Gov. Blagojevich enjoy cocoon
CHICAGO – As jurors retired to deliberate Wednesday in the corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, they entered a cocoon of privacy not all jurors in high-profile cases enjoy.
No e-mail messages from "the King of Japan," no fake letters from President Barack Obama postmarked in Iowa, no expletive-laden voicemail messages on their phones, like the ones that Judge James B. Zagel has received. No chance of Facebook postings using their names, either.
The ubiquity of e-mail and social networking and the Internet Age-urge for everyone to express their opinions were among the reasons Zagel cited when he prohibited the release of the 12 primary and five alternate jurors' names until after the verdict in the trial of the disgraced governor.
Withholding juror names is more common in trials involving alleged mobsters or terrorists, for security reasons, and media organizations contested Zagel's ruling. But the judge maintained that the jurors' ability to impartially decide an "inarguably" high-profile case could be impaired by unsolicited interruptions.
"His arguments for not releasing the names make perfect sense," said Chicago attorney Michael Helfand, reflecting sympathy with Zagel's decision in legal circles. "People could Google your name, call you — or connect with you on Facebook. This trial is enough of a disruption to (jurors') lives. Why disrupt it further?"
There's also the danger someone could alter a juror's ability to think clearly, Zagel said recently. If jurors "picked up a phone and heard a spewing of profanity — that could have a mood-altering impact," he said. In the judge's final ruling, he acknowledged that inappropriate contact of jurors is not a new issue, but said the risk was greater because of the "astounding" pervasiveness of e-mail and social media.
So, unlike in previous trials — such as that of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, Blagojevich's predecessor — most of what's known about the jurors determining Blagojevich's future is their occupations and a few details gleaned from the judge's questions during jury selection.
There's a math teacher, a retired public health official, a former Marine injured serving in the Middle East, a Navy veteran, an avid marathon runner and a man born in a U.S. internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II.
They will decide between the Blagojevich portrayed by prosecutors as a greedy, smart political schemer determined to use his power to enrich himself throughout his administration and the man defense attorneys characterized as an insecure bumbler who talked too much and had terrible judgment — but never did anything to enrich himself.
The ousted governor, 53, has pleaded not guilty to 24 counts, including trying to sell or trade an appointment to Obama's vacated Senate seat for a Cabinet post, private job or campaign cash. If convicted, he could face up to $6 million in fines and a sentence of 415 years in prison, though he is sure to get much less time under federal guidelines.
His brother, Nashville, Tenn., businessman Robert Blagojevich, 54, has also pleaded not guilty to taking part in that alleged scheme.
After Zagel gave jurors instructions Wednesday morning about their deliberations, two wire carts full of exhibits entered into evidence during the nearly two-month trial were wheeled into the jury room. That includes transcripts of the FBI wiretap tapes at the heart of the prosecution's case.
The jury's first orders of business were to elect a foreman and organize their deliberations. They decided to deliberate 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, courtroom deputy Donald Walker said.
What they do next is up to them. They could start by simply gauging feelings around the room, or reviewing jury instructions, or perhaps setting aside the ousted governor's case and starting with his co-defendant brother's, who face fewer counts.
Media scrutiny in the Ryan case helped expose two jurors who had apparently lied on their jury questionnaires at the start of the trial, leading to their dismissals during deliberations.
When an attorney representing the media alluded to that at a recent hearing about releasing the jurors' names, Zagel bristled.
"I reject categorically there have been many trials like this one," Zagel shot back. "This is, I think, the largest one I have ever seen — and it's not even close."
Prosecutors echoed that in urging Zagel not to release the names.
"Crackpots are everywhere," said Debra Bonamici, speaking for the prosecution. "But it's the high-profile nature of this case that brings them out of the woodwork."
Zagel says he's more worried about a pervasive belief among Americans that "their opinion somehow counts" on any subject — and that non-crackpots couldn't help trying to persuade jurors with reasoned argument.
He said a bigger risk in the Blagojevich case was not only the trial's high visibility but that so many people felt a personal link to the twice-elected governor — either as one-time constituents or as viewers who watched him as a reality TV contestant or other TV shows.
"We are dealing here with perhaps millions of people who voted for the defendant, who may feel betrayed by the defendant," Zagel said. "This is not ... something that happened to someone else."