Harsh sentence for Rod Blagojevich: Did his fight reflexes cause him harm?

Despite his apparent contrition in court, Rod Blagojevich wasted little time after sentencing before vowing ‘to fight through adversity.’ Legal experts suggest his boxer’s instincts antagonized the judge.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer The Christian Science Monitor

posted December 8, 2011 at 2:29 pm EST

Chicago – On Wednesday, moments after former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was told he was going to federal prison for 14 years, he was outside the courthouse quoting a Rudyard Kipling poem and suggesting that despite the judge’s order to report to prison in two months, the fight was not over.

“This is a time to be strong, this is time to fight through adversity … We’re going to keep fighting on through this adversity and [we’ll] see you soon,” Mr. Blagojevich said.

The suggestion that he wasn’t through fighting is perceived as unusual, especially after Blagojevich directed an apology to US District Judge James Zagel earlier that morning.

“The jury decided that I was convicted and I am accepting of it. I acknowledge it, and, of course, I am unbelievably sorry for it,” Blagojevich said.

They are words that ring hollow for many trial watchers.

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn said Wednesday that because Blagojevich continually referred to his actions as “mistakes” and not crimes makes his final admissions “the courtroom equivalent of the weasel’s apology.”

“In all this tangle of words and seeming self-reproach, I do not see a simple admission of intentional wrongdoing. The ‘mistakes’ he refers to are still not crimes in his mind – they are things he said and did that he now ‘accepts’ that the jury found were a crime,” Mr. Zorn wrote.

Ever since his arrest in December 2008 on corruption counts largely related to schemes to sell President Obama’s former US Senate seat in exchange for campaign contributions and political favors, Blagojevich has positioned himself as a scrappy street fighter in the ring against political enemies determined to knock him out.

One explanation is that Blagojevich indeed trained as a Golden Gloves boxer while in high school, participating in two fights before moving on to college.

Yet the skills Blagojevich learned in the ring did not help him in his political life.

“He’s a guy who’s not served well by those instincts. He just doesn’t understand what his priorities should be,” says Patrick Cotter, a former US prosecutor now in private practice in Chicago.

Legal experts say the severity of Blagojevich’s sentence – by comparison, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan received 6-1/2 years on corruption charges – is due in part to the continued adversarial approach he’s taken toward the legal system, and Judge Zagel in particular, since the start of the first of his two trials in 2010.

In the years that stretched between his arrest and sentencing this week, Blagojevich angrily defended himself through every means possible: a book, website, radio program, appearances on daytime, primetime and late-night television and even as a guest on Howard Stern. He positioned himself as a workingman’s populist who seemed to enjoy shaking hands with onlookers outside the courthouse and his home.

Late Wednesday afternoon, after learning he would spend 14 years behind bars, he was seen signing autographs outside his home. For Blagojevich, it appears that he is not yet down for the count.

“Rod always likes to say he’s an old boxer, but I see in Rod one of the habits of a bad boxer that every time you get hit you gotta hit back,” says Mr. Cotter.

“Better boxers realize that you hit when it is an advantage to hit, and when there’s not an advantage, you dance, you move, you use strategy. Rod has that bad habit of every time he got hit, he had to issue a press release or make a statement. It’s not a smart reflex…. It doesn’t seem to be really designed to persuade the judge, rather it appears to be designed for popular mass consumption.”

So what are Blagojevich’s options now?

According to Barry Pollack, a defense attorney in Washington who specializes in public corruption cases, Blagojevich has 14 days to file a notice of appeal, which sets in motion an appeals process that can ultimately make its way before a three-judge panel. The panel will ultimately hear oral arguments for and against his sentencing and then issue a written opinion.

While he is expected to report to prison Feb. 16, his defense can also ask for release from prison pending the appeal, the process of which can stretch over a year. Meaning that Blagojevich has the chance of remaining free well into next Christmas.

That, however, is not likely given the circumstances of this case.

“If I had to predict, I would say the judge will not allow him to stay out pending appeal,” Mr. Pollack says.

As it stands, Blagojevich faces serving at least 85 percent of his sentence, which means he may be released in January 2024, according to federal law.

At the same time the appeals process is set in motion, the Federal Bureau of Prisons will be making the decision on where Blagojevich will end up. The most likely choices are federal facilities in Oxford, Wis. and Terre Haute, Ind., where he will remain accessible to his nearby family.

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