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Blagojevich case shatters into mistrial

Jury deadlock foils 23 counts; found guilty only of lying

“They could not prove I did anything wrong — except for one nebulous charge,’’ Rod Blagojevich said yesterday. “They could not prove I did anything wrong — except for one nebulous charge,’’ Rod Blagojevich said yesterday. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
By Michael Tarm and Don Babwin
Associated Press / August 18, 2010

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CHICAGO — A federal jury deadlocked yesterday on all but one of 24 charges against former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, including the most explosive of all — that he tried to sell an appointment to President Obama’s old Senate seat. Blagojevich was convicted on a single, less serious count of lying to federal agents.

Prosecutors pledged to retry the case as soon as possible.

“This jury shows you that the government threw everything but the kitchen sink at me,’’ Blagojevich said outside court. “They could not prove I did anything wrong — except for one nebulous charge from five years ago.’’

But two jurors said the panel was deadlocked 11-1 in favor of convicting Blagojevich on more serious charges. One of those jurors said those counts included trying to auction off the Senate seat.

Juror Erik Sarnello of Itasca, Ill., said one woman on the jury “just didn’t see what we all saw.’’ The 21-year-old Sarnello said the counts involving the Senate seat were “the most obvious.’’

Other jurors tried to persuade the holdout to reconsider, but “at a certain point, there was no changing,’’ he said.

That so many jurors were convinced of Blagojevich’s guilt bodes well for prosecutors, said Joel Levin, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago who won a conviction of former Illinois governor George Ryan on corruption charges.

“At the end of the day it signals very strongly they will get a conviction next time,’’ Levin said. “It sounds like the case was lost in jury selection.’’

Blagojevich showed no emotion as the verdict was read. Before jurors came in, he sat with his hands folded, looking down and picking nervously at his fingernails. He and his lawyer said they would appeal the conviction.

The verdict came on the 14th day of deliberations, ending an 11-week trial during which a foul-mouthed Blagojevich was heard on secret FBI wiretap tapes saying the power to name a senator was “golden’’ and that he wasn’t going to give it up “for [expletive] nothing.’’

The count on which Blagojevich was convicted included accusations that he lied to federal agents when he said he did not track campaign contributions. But the jury did not convict him on his related assertion that he kept a “firewall’’ between political campaigns and government work. The count carries a sentence of up to five years in prison. Some of the more serious charges, such as racketeering, carried up to a 20-year penalty.

Blagojevich said that he was a victim of persecution by the federal government. He told reporters that he wants the “people of Illinois to know that I did not lie to the FBI.’’

It had been clear jurors were struggling with the case. Last week, they told Judge James B. Zagel they had reached a unanimous decision on just two counts and had not even considered 11 others.

Jury foreman James Matsumoto, 66, of Chicago, said while he voted to convict Blagojevich and his brother on all counts, he knew from the first day of deliberations that the jury would have trouble coming to unanimous agreement.

“It was a very arduous process,’’ Matsumoto said. “Some people looked at it and said, ‘He was only talking.’ ’’

Both Matsumoto and Sarnello bemoaned the complex case presented by prosecutors, and Matsumoto urged prosecutors to simplify their case during the retrial.

Jurors appeared more haggard yesterday than during the trial. As they filed into the courtroom, many appeared nervous, some looking down at the floor as Zagel read the verdict form to himself, then passed it to a bailiff.

They had asked earlier in the day for advice on filling out their verdict forms and a copy of the oath they took before deliberating.

The former governor’s brother and co-defendant, Robert Blagojevich, said the jury’s conclusion showed he’s been “an innocent target of the federal government’’ all along.

“I feel confident. I don’t feel in any way deterred. I’ve done nothing wrong,’’ he told reporters at the courthouse. “I’ve got ultimate confidence in my acquittal.’’

Defense lawyers had argued that Rod Blagojevich was a big talker, but never committed a crime. They took a huge gamble by deciding not to call any witnesses — including Blagojevich, who had repeatedly promised to take the stand.

Zagel set a hearing for Aug. 26 to decide manner and timing of the retrial, which could unfold at the height of the fall campaign.

When Zagel said he would give prosecutors time to decide whether to take Blagojevich to court again, prosecutor Reid Schar spoke up instantly.

“It is absolutely our intention to retry this,’’ the prosecutor said.

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