Blagojevich judge urges jury to keep trying to reach verdicts on more counts

A federal jury found former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich guilty Tuesday of one count of lying to federal agents, and the judge said he intends to declare a mistrial on the remaining counts.
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2010

CHICAGO -- A dozen days into jury deliberations in the corruption case against former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (D), there is no end in sight. The presiding judge, learning that jurors had reached a verdict on only two of 24 counts, told them Thursday to keep trying.

The jury has "gone beyond reasonable attempts to reach agreement" and has not begun considering 11 counts of wire fraud, the jurors reported to U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel. The notes gave no clue which two counts have been decided or what the verdict will be.

Jurors now have a long weekend to think it over. Zagel gave them Friday off. They are due back at the courthouse on Monday.

If the jurors, who have shown little desire for further instruction, wanted an assurance that they should press ahead, they received one. Before sending them back to work, the judge praised them outside their presence for their diligence and noted the lack of raised voices coming from the jury room.

But the handwritten messages after more than a week of public silence only deepened the mystery about their lengthy deliberations, with Blagojevich's future and the fruits of U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald's six-year investigation in the balance.

"If I were the government, I'd be really nervous right now," said Julian Solotorovsky, a former prosecutor. "If it took them this long to reach a verdict on only two counts, it means there's plenty of disagreement on the jury. That doesn't bode well."

The government presented hours of secretly recorded audiotapes and summoned some of Blagojevich's closest aides, who testified that the former congressman and two-term governor tried to shake down Illinois businesses seeking state money and intended to sell President Obama's former Senate seat to the highest bidder.

Blagojevich did not testify during the two-month trial. In fact, defense attorneys called no witnesses, telling the jury in closing arguments last month that Blagojevich was a dim bulb who only did what politicians do -- and meant to break no laws.

"He ain't corrupt," Sam Adam Jr. told the jury. "And it's proven in this case."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar called Adam's argument "desperate and ridiculous." But Adam's reasoning reached at least one juror.

"There are obviously some people in there who think the government met its burden and those who don't think the government met its burden," said Jeffrey Cramer, managing director of the investigations firm Kroll and a former prosecutor. "They're obviously having difficulty with the acts that make up the racketeering and attempted extortion charges."

Cramer, who has listened to the FBI tapes played during the trial, suspects the jury has decided to convict Blagojevich of lying to the FBI when he said he built a firewall between politics and government and did not keep track of contributions to his campaign committee.

Yet it is impossible to know what the six men and six women on the jury have decided or what will happen next, legal observers emphasized outside the courtroom. One theory holds that some jurors simply needed to know that they still have time to come to an agreement. Another view holds that the jury is steering the court toward a mistrial on many critical counts, forcing the prosecution to decide whether to retry the case.

Four years ago, it took a jury in the same courthouse 10 days to conclude that former governor George Ryan Jr., Blagojevich's Republican predecessor, was guilty of all 18 corruption charges against him.

The Blagojevich jurors first signaled trouble on Wednesday in a note to Zagel saying that they were stuck.

"In a situation where jurors can't agree on given counts, what should the next logical step be?" the note said. "We've gone beyond reasonable attempts without rancor. We now ask for guidance."

Zagel asked for more information, leading to the news that the jury was unanimous on only two counts. Blagojevich is named in two dozen counts, including racketeering, attempted extortion and perjury. His brother Robert, who briefly headed the governor's campaign committee in 2008, is named in four.

"I'm imagining both sides are in a state of shock right now," Solotorovsky said. "I think the government is thinking really bad thoughts and the defense is thinking really good thoughts."

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