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Lone juror kept Blagojevich out of prison

August 18, 2010
  • Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich
Associated Press,

CHICAGO (AP) -- They were close. After three weeks of respectful but increasingly tense deliberations, 11 jurors were ready to convict Rod Blagojevich of what prosecutors called a "political corruption crime spree" that would have sent yet another former Illinois governor to prison.

Not close enough. On vote after vote, the jury kept coming up one juror short -- a lone holdout who wouldn't budge and would agree only that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. "The person just did not see the evidence that everyone else did," said juror Stephen Wlodek.

The guilty verdict on the least serious of the 24 counts against him, and mistrial on all the rest, led Blagojevich to taunt prosecutors in the courthouse lobby. More than a year after federal prosecutors accused him of crimes that would make Abraham Lincoln "roll over in his grave," the disgraced politician bragged about essentially fighting them to a draw.

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"This fight is a lot bigger than just me and my family. This is a fight for the very freedoms that we as Americans enjoy," said Blagojevich, who promised to appeal his conviction on the single count. "The right to be able to be innocent, the right to be able to do your job and to not be lied about."

The morning after the verdict, the former governor emerged from his Chicago home in casual clothes, saying he was back on dad duty and was taking his youngest daughter to camp.

"We'll have more to say later," Blagojevich said. "Right now we've got to get Annie to camp."

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." He could be retried on the four counts against him that ended in the mistrial.

"I feel strong. I feel confident. I don't feel in any way deterred. I've done nothing wrong," he said. "I've got ultimate confidence in my acquittal."

The outcome that left the Blagojevich brothers so pleased came as a disappointment to some jurors who spoke to The Associated Press. They said further deliberations would not have mattered -- a second unanimous decision on a charge of attempted extortion evaporated shortly before the verdicts were to be read.

"I think in the end, based on what happened today, the people of the state just did not have justice served," said Wlodek, 36, a human resources manager whose job in the jury room was playing the FBI wiretap tapes in which Blagojevich, often in the most profane language imaginable, discussed his alleged schemes.

Federal prosecutors -- no doubt stung by the jury's inability to reach a decision on all but the single charge -- were as emphatic as the former governor. When U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel said Tuesday 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."

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald later thanked the jury for its service but refused to comment on their decision, citing the need to prepare for Blagojevich's second trial. Zagel set a hearing for Aug. 26 to decide manner and timing of the retrial, and a former federal prosecutor said the 11-1 split in favor of conviction on several counts bodes well for the government.

"At the end of the day it signals very strongly they will get a conviction next time," said Joel Levin, who helped win a conviction of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan in 2006. "It sounds like the case was lost in jury selection."

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

"I've been on juries before, I've never had it this tough," said juror Cynthia Parker, 60, of Gurnee, Ill.

Wlodek and other jurors disagreed on the exact number of counts in which the jury eventually voted 11-1 to convict. But more than one said on at least some of the most serious counts, the overwhelming sentiment was Blagojevich was not just a politician blowing off steam in conversations recorded by the FBI in which he said the power to name a senator was "(expletive) golden" and that he wasn't going to give it up "for (expletive) nothing."

"I had him guilty on all counts," said James Matsumoto, 66, a Vietnam veteran and retired television station librarian who served as foreman.

Matsumoto and juror Erik Sarnello said the most sensational allegation -- that Blagojevich tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's Senate seat -- was the one that most jurors agreed was true.

"For a lot of us, the Senate seat was the most obvious," said Sarnello, a 21-year-old College of DuPage student from Itasca. "The Senate seat was the strongest the prosecution had," echoed Parker, who said she did vote not guilty on some of the counts.

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