Friday, August 13, 2010

A false alarm

It seems we’re nowhere near a verdict against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on assorted charges of government corruption, and his brother Rob, who prosecutors say helped the one-time governor in what they claim is his illegal activity.

A lot of people got all worked up Wednesday afternoon and into the evening when the jury indicated it had questions about how united they had to be to be considered finished with their deliberations.

BUT WHEN THINGS were studied more rationally Thursday morning, it seems the jury isn’t anywhere near finished.

Of the 24 charges that Blagojevich, the former governor (not the brother), faces, the jury has only reached a verdict on two of them. There are 11 other charges, all related to wire fraud, that the jury hasn’t even gotten to.

Which means we’re talking about 11 other charges that the jury has deliberated for 12 days now, only to be unable to reach a decision.

Because of the wire fraud charges that haven’t been discussed yet by the jury, U.S. District Judge James Zagel was justified in telling the jurors that their work isn’t finished – and that they have to continue to deliberate.

CONSIDERING THAT THE wire fraud charges relate to the alleged attempt to “sell” a U.S. Senate appointment to the highest political bidder, those are the ones that have the potential to add the most time onto any prison sentence – assuming, of course, that Blagojevich the former governor is found guilty.

During the time Wednesday night when it wasn’t clear what the confusion was amongst the jurors, those of us who stumbled across local television news got to hear from countless legal pundits who told us what was “really” going on. Not that any of them really knew. They were just taking educated guesses, and their guesses all contradicted each other.

Some are convinced that this means a jury that is failing to see the prosecution’s case against the Blagojevich brothers, while others are convinced it is a sign that the gov is guilty. Others insist it is just the confusion about finding Rob guilty of things his brother, Rod, did.

What I see is a confused jury – one that is honest enough to admit that the case they are considering is overly complex. As one who has covered trials in U.S. District Court both in northern and central Illinois, I am aware that this confusion factor is typical in criminal trials.

FEDERAL CRIMES USUALLY are much more complex than, “Someone hit a woman over the head and tried to take her purse, and somebody across the street saw the whole thing.”

Which means it is common that juries in federal cases consist of individuals who have to be given a crash course in what the law actually says, and how the arcane acts involved in the case fit in with the law.

What I find encouraging is that we have a jury that is not so intimidated by the concept that they just assume the federal prosecution must be on to something. They’re not just giving a knee-jerk reaction so they can go home.

If anything, I find the fact that it seems the jury can’t make up its mind on 11 counts to be encouraging. It seems they’re taking their duty seriously – even though those people who are politically partisan and want a “guilty” verdict at all costs are now engaging in their own trash talk that this process is somehow being held up by one or two nitwits who are being stubborn and refusing to accept Blagojevich’s guilt.

OF COURSE, THERE is one fact to consider. All it is going to take to permanently besmirch Blagojevich’s legal reputation (his personal reputation has been trash for years) is a “guilty” verdict on one count.

For all we know, there may already be two “guilty” verdicts against Rod Blagojevich. He may have already lost.

There’s also the possibility that as the jury deliberates the 11 wire fraud counts, those jurors will gradually come to a concensus on the counts that currently divide them. The point is that extra time could erase the split.

We could still get a unanimous verdict on all 24 counts against Rod Blagojevich (Rob only has four charges against him).

THE REALITY IS that this case is going to take time. Personally, I’m not concerned about how long it takes a jury to deliberate – so long as it is clear that they are taking the matter seriously. It’s not like we’re in a case where the jury is being sequestered at taxpayer expense. The biggest drawback to the delay is that we get subjected to reports that Blagojevich skipped lunch, and instead drank a Snapple-brand fruit juice. Only The Bright One never told us which flavor Milorod prefers.

Those people who are anxiously awaiting a verdict and eager to hear the words “Guilty!” repeated 24 times in conjunction with Milorod’s name are the ones who ought to ease up (particularly since they will be all outraged if the real outcome is “Not Guilty”).

If guilt really is the eventual outcome, it will come soon enough. I’d rather not have a future legal appeal that claims the jury’s conduct itself (remember George Ryan’s jury) was at fault.


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