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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Blagojevich Verdict -- August 18, 2010

Yesterday afternoon the jury finally had a verdict in the trial of the former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich. Out of 24 counts, the jury was only able to come to a unanimous verdict on the last, and least serious, charge: lying to federal law enforcement. This conviction was probationable and only carried a maximum of 5 years in prison. Many people were surprised by the verdict including myself. Even after it became known the jury was deadlocked on certain counts, the legal community and public at large assumed Blagojevich would be convicted of more than just lying to federal police.

Two weeks ago I began a pool to see who could guess how long the Blagojevich jury would be in deliberations. Because of the notorious tapes of the former governor talking on the telephone trying to profit from his office, I thought the jury would come back with a verdict the first Friday. Juries typically do not like continuing deliberations over the weekend. My jury in fact, came back with a guilty verdict on a Friday. Others thought deliberations would continue into the second week due to all the counts and jury instructions. They chose various days from Monday through the following Friday. Listening to the Roe Conn news radio program on WLS, the latest guess was Friday the 13th of August, and it seemed she picked this date more out of superstition than any logical basis. She and the inmate several cells down from me, however, were the closest. I do not know what the news radio woman on the Roe Conn Show won, but the Stateville inmate won a six pack of soda pop.

The day after I made my prediction, I knew I was wrong. The jury sent a note to the judge asking for all the trial testimony. This was incredibly unusual. No jury asks for all the transcripts. The request signified to me the jury was going to go over the prosecutor's case meticulously. The judge rejected the jury's request, but told them if they wanted specific testimony, it would be ordered. Transcripts are not typed out verbatim by trial stenographers, but in a very abbreviated short hand that is not decipherable by people who do not know the coded language. Prisoners on appeal have to pay thousands of dollars for trial transcripts if they had a long trial, and do not claim an inability to hire a private lawyer. Some inmates have a Public Defender appointed to them on appeal before they hire counsel to save on legal expenses. The court in the Blagojevich trial did not deny the jury transcripts because of financial reasons, however. The judge probably made his decision based on the time required to produce the transcripts but also to encourage the jury to be more focused and rely on their notes and memory.

There was not much sympathy for Rod Blagojevich at Stateville. There was a certain tendency for prisoners to wish the same misery that we experience on the man who controlled the Illinois Department of Corrections. The governor does not make court rulings, nor does he prosecute the men behind bars. And although he can be influential in laws that are passed, he does not make legislation. However, the governor does have enormous control over our lives through the director and other administrators he appoints to control the prisons in Illinois. During Blagojevich's reign, life in prison did not improve, but conversely became worse.

When the Democratic governor before Rod Blagojevich was prosecuted there was some sympathy by prisoners, particularly those who were formerly on death row. George Ryan, before leaving office, commuted all the death sentences to natural life. He also commuted a handful of prisoners on death row to a term of years, and granted a few pardons. George Ryan made an impression on me due to his public recognition that the Illinois' justice system was broken. Many people have been convicted who are innocent. Over 10 prisoners who had death sentences were found to be innocent during George Ryan's tenure. One man came hours to being executed before the court granted his lawyer a stay of execution. Although I admired George Ryan for bringing attention to a flawed justice system, he did nothing to improve it, and I felt no sympathy for his conviction for corruption or for the amount of time he was sentenced to serve.

The answer to a broken justice system was not commuting the sentences of all death row inmates, despite how this may make the liberal left and capital punishment opponents happy. The answer was to correct the errors in the system and review cases on an individual basis. An investigation into the causes for wrongful convictions should have occurred, and then the governor should have immediately pushed for reform. Those prisoners with questionable convictions should have been given new trials or greatly reduced sentences if the courts or attorney general would not agree. What does natural life without the possibility of parole matter to a person who is innocent? Although many on death row are happy to have had their sentences commuted, I believe natural life is a protracted death sentence. It is an existence of infinite torture. If those who call for the abolition of the death penalty truly wanted to lessen suffering, they would advocate for more executions instead of life in prison.

Although George Ryan had a commission review the cases of those on death row, no one with a life sentence or term of years was granted any scrutiny. Between George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, four of my requests for clemency were denied. I have reason to believe the Prisoner Review Board has made positive recommendations in the past, but neither governor would give me the time of day. I had a federal congressman speak to George Ryan on my behalf, and I had someone personally hand Rod Blagojevich my petition along with letters of support. Blagojevich probably threw my petition in the garbage when he boarded his private jet to Springfield. He failed to review thousands of petitions, and ultimately, I doubt he personally looked at a single one. Possibly, I could have got Rod Blagojevich's attention if I had known everything was for sale. Afterall, my freedom is "fucking golden" and I would pay just about anything to have it back.

In Chicago, corruption is taken for granted by many of the people who live there. It is not surprising that two of Illinois' governors have been prosecuted. I am sure many other governors and politicians engage in patronage, quid pro quos, and other deal making. What is vulgar about Blagojevich's schemes to enrich himself, his wife, or his friends is the indiscreet and crude manner he went about it. To talk on the telephone about selling Barack Obama's senate seat was certainly blatant folly, especially considering he was fully aware of the federal government investigating his office. I sense an arrogance that he thought he was above the law and a king without anyone to answer to. And Blagojevich was a bad monarch, as testimony at his trial revealed he was only in his office performing his duties a few hours a week. Almost all the work and responsibilities of the governor's office was delegated to subordinates.

The massive $14 billion state deficit, not including pension liabilities which tally over $100 billion, was largely inherited by Governor Quinn from the Blagojevich administration. Blagojevich refused to make the necessary cuts to government spending, and did not even try getting agreement with the Democratic or Republican legislature. I tend to believe former Governor Blagojevich did not care about the state's financing, only his own. I will give him credit for remaining true to his word and not raising taxes, however, I do not know if this speaks to his integrity or principles. He seemed to want to be popular by giving out foolish subsidies like the "Seniors Ride for Free Program," and not making any cost-cutting decisions. At one point, Blagojevich, or most likely his staff, sought to reduce IDOC spending by closing the state's most costly and run down prison: Stateville. However, when the legislature attempted to pass a bill that would allow serving governors to be evicted, he changed his mind to get the support of the guard's powerful union and several legislators. It was a bad bill, but the former governor refused to make the necessary cuts to state spending. His predecessor, it must be said, however, also failed to make those politically tough decisions as well. Hopefully, his political opponent is willing to use the hatchet to remedy Illinois' financial catastrophe.

Although I was not sympathetic to Rod Blagojevich, I could understand, or possibly empathize with him and his wife's wait during the jury deliberations. Waiting on a verdict for a criminal defendant is very stressful. Any any moment, the jury could reach a verdict. There is nothing you can do to reason or argue with jurors at this point. It is completely out of your hands once your attorney gives his final argument. In my case, the jury was out for several days. For those days, my life literally was in their hands. Rod Blagojevich did not face a death sentence, however, if convicted on all counts, he could have spent most of his remaining years in prison, albeit a nice minimum-security prison in the federal system. Nontheless, I am sure this weighed heavily on his and his wife's thoughts for those two weeks. Although Blagojevich gave a spirited speech afterwards to reporters, I noted Patty Blagojevich appeared drained, and I knew the ex-governor must also be despite his continued optimistic rhetoric.

Fortunately for Rod Blagojevich, he was given bail and could wait out most of the deliberations in his nice home. I was bussed back and forth from the maximum-security section of Cook County Jail. Early in the morning before the sun was up, I had to walk the tunnels underneath the county jail and wait in dirty, loud cages with hundreds of other detainees until we were handcuffed and smashed into sardine can-like buses. At the courthouse, I waited hours and hours usually alone in a barren cell. On occasion, my lawyer or family would visit with me.

Despite the recorded tape conversations of Blagojevich and a number of witnesses that told of his attempts to profit from his position as governor, Sam Adams, Jr., put on an aggressive defense and argued passionately inside and outside the courtroom his client's innocence. At least Rod could think that, for better or for worse, his lawyers did all they could to keep him out of the clinker. Contrarily, my lawyer did not contest the prosecution's theory of accountability, and even told my jury that the interrogating officer's testimony was true. My attorneys had numerous witnesses and evidence at their disposal, even such that put my car 50 miles away from the murder scene to prove the cop was a liar, but chose not to use it. I knew going into deliberations that I was doomed. Even when my co-defendant was acquitted, I knew I was going to be convicted. After a few days passed, I hoped for a hung jury. I wish I had one juror who would obstinately refuse to render a guilty verdict. My lead attorney had bought me an ugly tie to wear, and I continued to wear it every day of my deliberations. Superstitiously I thought if I kept the same clothes on that the deliberations would go on indefinitely and remain at a deadlock. At least with a hung jury, I could fire my lawyers and hire new ones who would actually present a defense. Unlike the Blagojevich jury, however, no one held out for me.

After the judge announced a mistrial on 23 counts, the defense team and former governor came out with very self-confident statements. I heard about how the prosecution with the full power and resources of the federal government could not prove their case. Sam Adams, Jr. told the media how millions of dollars were used to prosecute an innocent man. Blagojevich also spoke to the press and gave them a spirited "I am not a crook" speech. As he told the public time and time again, he had done nothing wrong and this verdict, or lack thereof, proves it. Indeed, at the time, it seemed the defense was victorious. Out of 24 charges, the prosecutor was only able to obtain one unanimous guilty verdict, and this was on the least serious charge in the indictment. If I was Rod Blagojevich, I would be jubilant as well. However, I would not be so smug until I knew how the jury deadlocked. In my case, I am almost certain I would win a retrial. In Blagojevich's case, I would be highly skeptical if a jury was only a vote away from guilty verdicts.

While his jury was deliberating, I had a discussion with my neighbor about hung juries. It is one of many I have had with him. My neighbor portrays himself as a "know it all," although he knows very little. And despite his ignorance, he will vehemently argue a point if you let him. Yesterday, he told me that if the jury had deadlocked with a minority voting guilty, Blagojevich would have to be acquitted. This is false, and even if eleven of the twelve voted for acquittal, Blagojevich still would have a hung jury. A verdict must be unanimous or a mistrial is declared. As I told him before, he is a "real man of genius." He knows I was disingenuous in my words and I say this often when there is no point discussing a subject with him. "The real man of genius" quote comes from a silly beer commercial that mocks a man's intelligence.

Today I learned on news talk radio that the jury was deadlocked, not 11 to 1, in Blagojevich's favor, but against him. Only one juror held out and if it was not for this one woman, the ex-governor would have probably been found guilty on all 24 charges. On the WLS Roe Conn Show they joked that this older woman was one of the few to benefit from Blagojevich's "free ride for seniors." The news that there was only one hold-out certainly had to deflate the hot air balloons of the defense, and vice versa, caused the prosecutor to feel more confident. Blagojevich will be retried, and most likely he will be found guilty on all counts.

Sam Adams, Jr., and later Rod Blagojevich, would try to put pressure on the government by speaking about the expense to reprosecute him. They claimed the prosecutor would spend $30 million in a second trial, and inferred this was a waste of taxpayers' dollars, especially at a time of needed fiscal restraint. Other legal experts were interviewed by news programs and were of the opinion this figure was greatly exaggerated. Furthermore, they stated it was an irrelevant figure because federal prosecutors get paid a flat rate and this money would be spent regardless. If Blagojevich was not being reprosecuted, another case would be. Thus the defense then attacked the federal prosecutor for not going after other criminals. Sam Adams, Jr. told the news media babies were being killed on the streets of Chicago and yet the federal government was going after his client whose only crime was talking too much.

After my trial, my father attempted to find out how much the county spent on my conviction through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The government refused to give him a figure and stated that although the amount could be ascertained by calculating all the bills, it was not a figure tallied by Cook County accountants. Almost all information collected by government offices can be procured through FOIA. However, the statute cannot be used to gain information that is not readily available or requires processing. Despite this, sources speculated more money was spent prosecuting me than the serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

Legal analysts of news programs I watched stated that Rod Blagojevich's defense would most likely cost more than his reprosecution. It was estimated Sam Adams Sr. and Jr. were paid over $10 million dollars. The ex-governor has claimed to have no more money to finance his defense. However, even if this is true, I tend to believe a law firm will volunteer to represent him pro bono. Law firms gain tax write-offs for doing legal work for free. They also gain free publicity. I tend to believe the Adams' will not represent Rod Blagojevich again because not only will they not be paid, but the first trial will always be seen as a victory in prospective clients' minds. A second trial will be a losing proposition. Odds of rolling snake eyes again are minute. Though, Sam Adams Jr. did say he loved Rob Blagojevich.

I visited with my father while the deliberations were in their second week. My father has thought from the beginning the prosecutor's case was weak and the jury would not easily come to a decision. He has even gone so far to say he would not convict the ex-governor if he was on the jury. I inquired why, and he replied, as some others have to the news media, that Blagojevich spoke about committing a number of crimes, but ultimately he did not do them. The lone juror who refused to tender a guilty verdict also, apparently, did so based on this reasoning. The law is clear that many crimes, like the 23 counts Blagojevich was charged with, do not have to be completed. The are inchoate offenses. However, there is certainly a problem in the conscience of many Americans about being convicted of crimes only contemplated, but not committed. And I believe this is rightfully so.

America is supposed to be a land of freedom. But how free are we when we can be sent to prison for merely thinking about committing a crime? Just because a man or woman may consider, or talk about committing a crime, does not necessarily mean they will do so. Our freedom is substantially put at risk when laws are made to give power to the thought police. Who among us has never considered committing a crime? Who among us has never uttered a threat or desire to commit a crime? Who has never reconsidered an action after that contemplation? If society creates thought crimes, we may all be in prison.

I am reminded of a movie starring the actor Tom Cruise where psychics predicted crimes that were going to occur. Before the crime(s) actually occurred, police would arrest the potential offender. This person was given no trial, and was immediately put in prison. The rate of crime plummeted to virtually nothing. The police and public were under the illusion of a perfect, utopian society until one day the oracles predicted one of their own thought police would commit a murder. Tom Cruise, instead of turning himself in, ran. Ultimately he never killed anyone, and it was found the psychics were not infallible. Many people had gone to prison that would never have committed a crime.

The movie Minority Report was science fiction, but even in the real world, many police, prosecutors, judges and juries think they can see into the hearts of men and read their future. It leaves me to ponder the suppression of freedom and justice inchoate laws create. I also ponder how many men are in U.S. prisons, victims of wannabe psychics.