As the retrial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich lurches into its third week, is anyone paying attention?
J. Steven Beckett, a U. of I. law professor and expert on white-collar crime, spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the muted interest in the ex-governor's retrial.
Why is there an almost complete lack of interest in the ex-governor's retrial?
It's like a re-run of TV show we've already seen and didn't particularly care for the first time around. Well, now they're showing it again, and they've even changed the cast of characters, but they've replaced all the stars with unknowns.
During the original trial, the tapes of the ex-governor cursing a blue streak had a pretty resounding reaction the first time they were played in court. Now, it was nothing. Nobody is listening.
Although the retrial itself hasn't garnered much attention, it has been interesting watching the media coverage. In the first trial, you could read a blog that had detailed, up-to-the-minute updates about the trial - who's on the witness stand, what they said, etc. Well, it's not being updated anymore. So while there is some media coverage, it's not as intense as the first trial. I think there's almost an assumption that this retrial is a formality - that, in essence it's a slow plea of guilty.
I also think reasonable human beings and reasonable lawyers would have figured out a way to come to a plea agreement to end this case before it started and let people get on with their lives. But a lot of that has to do with the ex-governor's unique personality; he just can't bring himself to plead guilty.
Blagojevich's defense team recently complained to Judge Zagel that they were being made to look like "buffoons." Is that a good strategy to curry favor with the jury?
I suppose every criminal defense lawyer at some time in his or her career has had a situation where they felt that the trial judge was engaged in a conspiracy with the prosecution to get them. It's a kind of defense lawyer's paranoia. However, if you read the opinions from time to time, you'll discover that they're right, to some extent. Trial judges are human beings, too. They can have a bias about a case and the rulings can go across the lines and they can lose impartiality in the handling of the case.
I'm not saying that's what's happening here with Judge Zagel, but it has happened in the past. Judges do make mistakes, and cases do get reversed on appeal. It happens. But your job as a defense lawyer is to keep your cool, be respectful of the judge, be a strong advocate in the right way and keep going forward.
How difficult is it for the defense when your client is national joke?
No doubt about it, it's a daunting task for any defense team. Aaron Goldstein is a very experienced criminal trial attorney, but he has more experience in state court than in federal court. And there is a difference - you have a tougher time as a defendant in federal court. The odds of winning in federal court are slim and none. Our federal courthouse in Urbana, for example, has never had a "not guilty" verdict, at least since Judge McCuskey has been on the bench beginning in 1998. That should show you that the federal system is a little different than the state system.
So there's a different mindset for a defense lawyer in federal court. The federal government has more resources, and they are much more deliberate in their investigation and presentation of the case to the grand jury. They'll sometimes spend three, four or five years to get a case ready, and then as a defense attorney you have 70 days to digest all that evidence.
I think experience in federal court makes all the difference, but both parties usually figure out a way to negotiate before going to trial because the eventual penalties are so draconian. I've been practicing law since the early 1970s, and a first offender who was charged with a white-collar crime in federal court back then could expect to face probation. Not anymore. Everybody goes to jail. And they don't just go to jail for short periods of time - look at Governor Ryan, who's been incarcerated now for seven years.
Is there any hope for a plea bargain?
No. My experience has been, to have a successful plea bargain, you must have a reasonable client. And by definition, this case fails that test.