Warring sides to take stage in Blagojevich trial; prosecutors warn defense against impropriety

CHICAGO (AP) — Federal prosecutors and Rod Blagojevich's attorneys prepared Monday to take the stage for what promises to be a dramatic first act of the former governor's corruption trial, after three fast-paced days of preparatory jury selection.

Blagojevich's fiery attorney says his opening statement could run two and a half hours, while the main prosecutor warned that he'll be on watch for any remarks that the trial judge has ruled out of bounds.

Judge James B. Zagel said he plans to seat the 12-member jury plus alternates Tuesday morning and told defense attorneys to be ready to deliver their opening statements immediately afterward. About 50 potential jurors remain in the pool.

Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to scheming to get a payoff using his power as governor to fill the Senate seat President Barack Obama vacated following his 2008 election. He also denies that he plotted to use his power to launch a wide-ranging racketeering scheme with profits for himself and a circle of cronies.

His co-defendant — and brother — Robert Blagojevich, 54, has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the alleged plan to sell the Senate seat and plotting to illegally squeeze a racetrack owner for a hefty contribution to the Blagojevich campaign fund.

The ousted governor arrived at court Monday seemingly ready for combat.

"I guess all things considered its kind of nice to be back," Blagojevich said. "This is the place where we can finally get the truth out."

His fiery attorney Sam Adam Jr. told Zagel he will need 2½ hours for his opening statement because the racketeering and fraud charges against Blagojevich made for "a complicated case." Zagel said he could have an hour and 45 minutes.

Prosecutors will be listening carefully. Lead prosecutor Reid Schar told Zagel that defense attorneys have been telling reporters various theories of Blagojevich's defense that violate orders the judge has already issued limiting what jurors can be told. Such limits are normal and designed to ensure fairness.

Schar warned that if defense attorneys go over the line he will cut in immediately.

"If it heads in that direction, judge, obviously we will object, Schar said.

Michael Ettinger, who represents Robert Blagojevich, said he would need about 45 minutes for his opening statement, and federal prosecutor Carrie E. Hamilton estimated she would need about an hour.

Adam won the limelight two years ago with a shouting, whispering, table-pounding closing argument that preceded R&B singer R Kelly's acquittal on child pornography charges. He said after court that he expected to be just as emotional and energetic in his opening statement for Blagojevich.

"I don't know anything else," he said. "I'll be sweating, I'll be moving."

That could offer a sharp contrast to Hamilton, a cool and methodical veteran prosecutor who nevertheless opened the trial of Tony Rezko, one of Blagojevich's top fundraisers, memorably by describing him as "the man behind the curtain, pulling the strings." Rezko was convicted of fraud and other offenses.

Over the last three days, Zagel and the attorneys have whittled away at the large jury pool, with Zagel dismissing potential jurors on a variety of grounds, such as hardship or possible bias. One woman was dismissed late Monday after she acknowledged that she had two friends who had worked in the Blagojevich administration.

The remaining pool includes a middle-aged insurance underwriter who had said on his pretrial questionnaire that he believed some politicians care about "the public good." He said most, though, are motivated by "ego, control, power and money." But he said that wouldn't stop him from giving Blagojevich a fair trial. Also still in the pool are a real estate agent, a psychiatric social worker and an elementary school teacher.

Before Zagel seats the jury, both sides will be allowed to dismiss a few people from the pool of potential jurors without having to give a reason. Once the jurors get their preliminary directions from Zagel and court security officers, the judge will turn the trial over to the lawyers — and the fireworks can begin.