Thursday, April 21, 2011
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Blagojevich retrial gets off to quiet start

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[April 21, 2011]  CHICAGO (AP) -- Rod Blagojevich's second corruption trial began Wednesday with little of the hoopla that surrounded the first, as potential jurors quietly began filling out questionnaires aimed at weeding out anyone with strong biases for or against the ousted Illinois governor.

Since Blagojevich's first trial ended last year with jurors deadlocked on all but one count of lying to the FBI, federal prosecutors have simplified their case and dropped complex charges to address previous juror complaints that the evidence was too difficult to follow.

Would-be members of the jury that will decide Blagojevich's fate this time around started filling out their questionnaires Wednesday morning, court official Donald Walker said. Among the queries is how closely potential jurors followed the occasionally circus-like first trial. Knowledge of the case, though, wouldn't automatically rule someone out.

Blagojevich still faces 20 charges, including allegations he sought to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job.

The 54-year-old is returning to trial with a scaled-down, more bookish defense team that no longer includes lead lawyer Sam Adam Jr., whose courtroom theatrics in round one often drew the judge's ire. Blagojevich also will be the lone defendant after authorities dropped all charges against his brother.

Like a second-night Broadway performance, the actors presumably come in with many missteps and miscues corrected.

"Everyone improves," said Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein.

The central figure in the case isn't required to be at the courthouse for the earliest stages of jury selection, so it could be a day or two before Blagojevich makes his entrance. Jury selection could take about a week.

The former contestant on TV's "Celebrity Apprentice" recently said he looked forward to the chance to try to prove his innocence. But he also said he dreaded the retrial.

"To have to sit through that and hear all that again ... it's brutal," Blagojevich told The Associated Press in a weekend interview at his Chicago home -- the family dog, Skittles, resting on his lap.

Blagojevich already could get up to five years in prison for the lying conviction at the first trial. And the stakes are as high as ever this time: A conviction on just one offense could mean a decade or more behind bars.

Last year, a single juror who refused to go along with the rest of the panel was the only thing that prevented Blagojevich from being convicted on the Senate seat charge.

"Would you want to be the defense, knowing you have to change 11 minds to get an acquittal, or prosecutors, thinking you have to change just one?" said Michael Helfand, a Chicago attorney with experience in federal courts.

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Prosecutors have their challenges, too. Their case so befuddled jurors the first time around that they drew up their own timelines of alleged misdeeds and taped them to a wall as they deliberated.

Prosecutors have since dropped racketeering charges, which have stupefying legal points and subpoints. They also dismissed all charges against Blagojevich's brother and co-defendant, Robert Blagojevich, allowing them to focus entirely on the former governor.

They even sought to edit out what they consider irrelevant chitchat on hours of FBI wiretap recordings, evidence at the heart of the government case, including a reference in one conversation to Blagojevich's famously bountiful locks.

"They've been like a ship tossing excess baggage overboard to get through a storm," said David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

With the prosecution pursuing a condensed case, many experts say it would behoove the defense to call at least a few witnesses -- in contrast to the first trial, when they chose not to put on a case.

Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor, said he normally would adhere to conventional wisdom that it's almost always a bad idea to expose a defendant to blistering cross-examination. But he said the defense may want to consider putting Blagojevich on the stand.

"As a politician, Blagojevich knows rhetorical bobbing and weaving, and he knows acting, so he can act cool or indignant when he needs to," Turner said. "He could be formidable."

Blagojevich told AP he has been preparing for the possibility he could testify. But he said whether he takes the stand is a decision that will be made during the trial.

[Associated Press; By MICHAEL TARM]

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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