Why Rod Blagojevich was convicted on only one of 24 counts

The count of lying to the FBI – the one conviction the jury in the Rod Blagojevich trial handed down Tuesday – is often included to make sure a jury returns at least one guilty verdict. The other counts may have been too complex.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor
posted August 17, 2010 at 8:14 pm EDT

Chicago — Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was found guilty Tuesday on just one of the 24 counts he faced in his federal corruption trial over allegations he attempted to swap official acts as governor for money.

After deliberating 14 days, the jury convicted Mr. Blagojevich of lying to the FBI in a verdict that could send him to jail for up to 5 years.

The jury was deadlocked on the remaining 23 counts – including bribery, fraud, conspiracy, and racketeering – and could not reach a verdict on charges against Robert Blagojevich, the impeached governor’s brother.

US District Judge James Zagel declared a mistrial regarding the deadlocked counts and said federal prosecutors have until Aug. 26 to decide whether to retry the case before a different jury. Federal prosecutors said Tuesday that they will seek another trial.

Outside the courtroom, Blagojevich reaffirmed his innocence to reporters and called the single count he was found guilty on “nebulous.”

“The government threw everything but the kitchen sink at me … I did not lie to the FBI. I told the truth from the very beginning,” he said.

He said US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald “wasted and wanted to spend tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money.”

Blagojevich was found guilty of telling federal agents he has “tried to maintain a firewall between politics and government” and that he “does not track, or want to know, who contributes to him or how much they are contributing to him.”

Stuart Slotnick, a New York City criminal defense attorney who specializes in white collar crimes, calls the statements “puffing you would expect from a politician” and says the count of lying to the FBI is typically used to safeguard a guilty verdict in cases like this one, which may involve other charges a jury may consider too complex to sort out.

“He really wasn’t convicted on any of the core counts. [Lying to the FBI] was almost an ancillary count,” Mr. Slotnick says.

The nature of Tuesday’s verdict on the least substantive charge, however, has the possibility of emboldening Blagojevich to declare his innocence and press for a second trial, Slotnick says.

The jury’s verdict ends what has been a legal saga and celebrity tour for Blagojevich, who was arrested outside his home Dec. 9, 2008 and spent the 18 months leading up to the trial declaring his innocence.

What was expected to be a four-month trial tuned out to be relatively brief at about two months. Blagojevich did not testify nor did his attorneys call to the stand several high-profile names on their witness list, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and US Senator Dick Durbin.

Central to the prosecutor’s case was Blagojevich’s scheming to sell President Obama’s former US Senate seat. He was heard in wiretaps with aides discussing possible candidates for the seat and maneuverings to conduct meetings on the matter, which prosecutors say constitutes a crime.

No money changed hands, however, which may have confused jurors on the exactitude of the crime, says David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a Chicago-based nonpartisan think tank.

“Racketeering and conspiracy are sometimes difficult ideas to understand … and that’s the aspect jurors may have been tripped up on,” he says.

“What I saw was tape recordings of people discussing the criminal acts they wanted to engage in and witnesses on the stand saying that was me on that phone call and here’s what I did to complete that conspiracy. To my mind it seemed like a very strong case but some members of this jury seemed to have a problem with that,” he added.

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