Twice-elected Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich ended the most important campaign of his life Tuesday, stepping down from the witness stand at his corruption retrial after speaking to jurors for seven days.
In often long-winded answers, Blagojevich insisted before jurors that he never sought to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for a top job or campaign cash, or ever tried to shake down executives for contributions.
He argued that his talk captured on FBI wiretaps was merely brainstorming, and that he never took the schemes seriously or decided to carry them out. And though the judge barred such arguments, Blagojevich claimed he'd believed his conversations were legal and part of common political discourse.
As he stepped off the stand, Blagojevich tried to shake hands with the prosecutor who had been grilling him, but the government attorney turned away. Judge James Zagel told jurors not to read anything into it, saying it was protocol for prosecutors not to interact with defendants once they're off the stand.
Zagel said the defense plans to call two more witnesses Wednesday, when the government could be ready to deliver its closing arguments. The defense would then present its closing. Zagel said he expected jurors to begin deliberating as soon as Thursday.
Blagojevich left the courthouse Tuesday without speaking to reporters, though he did stop to shake hands with well-wishers outside. He hasn't spoken publicly since taking the stand.
The former governor's first trial last year ended with jurors deadlocked on all but one count. He was found guilty of lying to the FBI. He did not testify at that trial.
Blagojevich's tried to bob and weave under the sometimes aggressive cross-examination this time, occasionally stuttering, catching himself and starting again. His answers often ran on and frequently appeared to contradict his own words captured on the wiretaps.
Seeming emotional at times while speaking about his family and showing anger as he denied the charges, Blagojevich endeavored to win over jurors who will decide his fate. If they find him guilty on even a few charges, he could face up to decades in jail.
How jurors reacted was hard to tell. Sitting just a few feet from Blagojevich as he testified, they sat mostly expressionless. Occasionally, some laughed at a wisecrack or shook their heads at something he said.
Terry Sullivan, a former state's attorney who helped prosecute serial killer John Wayne Gacy and who has sat through much of Blagojevich's testimony, said the former governor did much better than expected.
“I don't think he was manhandled by the prosecution, although that might have been a strategy so that they didn't look like tyrants in front of the jury,” he said.
Blagojevich's lawyer brought up several issues in their redirect to clear them up, and can now argue them to the jury at closing arguments, Sullivan said.
He said he was surprised the prosecution didn't question Blagojevich again after the redirect, but said that also may have been a strategy to avoid giving the former governor a chance to reiterate points and perhaps persuade a juror.
In his testimony Tuesday, Blagojevich repeatedly denied that he began to seriously consider appointing U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to the Senate seat only after fundraisers close to Jackson said they would raise millions in campaign funds for Blagojevich if he would name him.
“That would have been illegal, correct?” prosecutor Reid Schar asked.
“Absolutely,” Blagojevich responded. “I was never going to pick Congressman Jackson, I know that.”
Schar then read wiretap transcripts in which Blagojevich says in early December 2008 about Jackson, “I am going to begin to objectively, honestly consider him.” Blagojevich later adds on a recording that, among potential Senate seat candidates, Jackson was “the only one to, like, offer stuff.”
“Those are you words, correct?” Schar asked.
“Yes,” Blagojevich said.
The name of Chicago's new mayor Rahm Emanuel also arose again Tuesday.
Zagel refused to let defense attorneys play an FBI wiretap recording from 2008 of then-Gov. Blagojevich speaking with Emanuel, who went on to become White House chief of staff.
Had the judge granted the request, it would have been the first time Blagojevich jurors heard a recording of Emanuel, who left his job as Obama's chief of staff last year to run for mayor.
Prosecutors had broached Emanuel's name Monday as they cross-examined Blagojevich. They asked Blagojevich about a request Emanuel, then a congressman, made for Blagojevich to appoint an interim successor to the Chicago seat Emanuel was vacating.
The defense wanted to play a Nov. 8 recording in which Emanuel called Blagojevich to discuss that possibility. Zagel said it wasn't relevant.
With the jury out of the courtroom, defense attorney Aaron Goldstein read an excerpt of the recorded conversation, in which Blagojevich tells Emanuel, “I'm happy to appoint your guy. If I can do it, I'll do it.”
Neither prosecutors nor the defense addressed why Emanuel may have asked for any such appointment. A special election is typically held when a congressional seat is vacated.
At an unrelated news conference Tuesday, Emanuel said he answered all questions lawyers thought necessary when he testified at the trial for about five minutes last month.
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