Friday, June 04, 2010
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Judge, bugs outshine Blago with jury pool

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[June 04, 2010]  CHICAGO -- It may have been former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's trial, but it was federal Judge James Zagel's show at Thursday's jury selection.

HardwareAfter a late start on the first day of the federal corruption trial, Zagel eased through the process, completing interviews with one-third of the trial's 90 prospective jurors before recess. It was a calm process amid a courthouse crowded with calamity.

Jurors were stowed away in a back room throughout the day to avoid the bright camera lights in the courthouse lobby, as well as the two packed courtrooms awaiting their testimony.

Jurors, ranging from a retired accountant to a community college student, were escorted one by one to the jury stand. And each seemed to ignore the spectators, as well as the high-profile defendant. As all eyes were on those in the jury box, their eyes remained on the judge for almost all of the eight-minute questioning.

The judge picked the respective candidates' brains on a wide range of topics from the questionnaires the court had drawn up over the past week. But the judge focused most of his energy on the prospective jurors' reading habits, news consumption and political activities.

Many of the jurors expressed only a broad understanding of the corruption allegations against the former governor, which include an attempt to "sell" President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat for political and personal gain.

Robert Hirschhorn, a national expert on jury selection, said Zagel's priorities are in the right place.

"The first thing you have to address is the question of publicity," he said. "That's the only way you can make sure (Blagojevich) gets a fair trial."

There were those more familiar with the former first couple's 18-month media blitz following the former governor's arrest, rather than the scandal that prompted Blagojevich's ouster.

Wife Patti's stint on NBC's "I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here" was known by some jurors.

"Something about some bugs on TV," one prospective juror told Zagel in response to her familiarity with the defendant. Mrs. Blagojevich ate a spider in that reality show.

Former prosecutor Rodger Heaton said he is not surprised that Blagojevich's reputation has shifted since his arrest.

"It has been a long time," he said. "The sting isn't there anymore from when we first heard about what he (allegedly) tried to do with the (Senate) seat."

Publicity is as much an issue now as it was when Blagojevich was a contestant on "The Celebrity Apprentice" television show -- which is why Zagel rejected a call by news organizations to reveal the identities of potential jurors.

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Natalie Spear, a lawyer representing the news media, argued that high-profile cases are the time for the judicial system to remain open for credibility's sake.

"This is a matter of importance for not only the defense and the (prosecutors), but the judicial process," she said. "Openness is a hallmark of the judicial system."

But Zagel said that identifying jurors could subject them to public scrutiny and pressure by members of the public.

"By communicating directly with decision-makers, (people) would be bypassing the adversarial system," in which both sides must be represented, he said.

Blagojevich, however, did not shy away from the potential jurors or anyone else for that matter.

He entered the courtroom smiling and shaking hands and left it in the same manner. The former governor remained calm in the courtroom. Rarely did Blagojevich look down at the table or miss out on a laugh during the hearing's more lighthearted moments, especially Patti's renewed celebrity among the jury pool.

But when the time came to make a statement to the public, it was his wife rather than the former governor who took to the podium.

"Today is a good day because today begins a process to correct an injustice that's been done to my husband, our family and the people of Illinois," she said. "My husband is a good, honest man."

The court will be back in session at 9 a.m. Friday, when the prosecution and defense will eliminate jurors thought to be biased.

[Illinois Statehouse News; By BILL McMORRIS]

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