CHICAGO — Rod Blagojevich’s corruption retrial heads into a critical stage, with the prosecution set to begin cross-examining the ousted Illinois governor in depth on Monday.
Reid Schar, the lead government attorney, began a blistering cross-examination at the end of last week with a brief by highly combative hour of questions and answers. Schar is expected to walk through the impeached governor’s testimony point by point as the cross-examination resumes Monday.
The next few days could be decisive, legal expert said, as prosecutors try to reverse whatever gains Blagojevich may have made with the jury while fielding comparatively soft questions from his own attorney last week. Monday will be Blagojevich’s sixth day on the stand.
“The next few days are it,” said Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago. “The first deadlocked trial, the motions, everything that’s happened in the retrial so far – it all comes down to this.”
Blagojevich’s first trial last year ended with jurors deadlocked on all but one count. He was found guilty of lying to the FBI.
What landed Blagojevich in court was his talk – captured on FBI wiretaps – that prosecutors say shows he tried to leverage his power to name someone to President Barack Obama’s old Senate U.S. seat and secure campaign donations, a Cabinet post, an ambassadorship or some other top job in the process.
Now, he’s been trying to talk himself out of this legal mess.
Some legal observers say Blagojevich’s sometimes rambling, repetitive testimony is only digging him in deeper, making it more likely he will be convicted of some or all of the 20 corruption counts he faces at this trial, including attempted extortion and fraud.
Others say he’s done well, at the very least muddying the waters after prosecutors presented a strong three-week case. They allege Blagojevich tried to sell or trade the Senate seat and tried to squeeze executives for campaign cash by threatening state decisions that would hurt their businesses
“I think he has done a nice job and has helped his cause a lot,” 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.
Blagojevich didn’t flinch from engaging Schar in the verbal brawl when the prosecutor confronted the twice-elected governor as cross-examination began.
“Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct?” Schar asked, his voice raised in anger.
After the judge overruled objections from defense attorneys, Blagojevich said calmly, “Yes.”
Facing rapid-fire questions for an hour, Blagojevich seemed occasionally flustered but not cowed.
“He didn’t crumble,” Sullivan said.
Blagojevich seems so certain about his rhetorical ability that he even tried several times to answer questions his own lawyer tried to head off. “Objection, Rod!” his attorney yelled at him across the room.
While answering softball questions from his own attorneys earlier in the week, Blagojevich appeared mainly at ease but also indignant at times. He answered repeated questions about whether he ever tried to shake anyone down with a firm, “Absolutely not!”
His tone in court was a contrast to the impression he makes on FBI recordings as crude, sometimes petty and often greedy. He’s frequently delivered the courtroom equivalent of campaign speeches, slipping in – before prosecutors can object – references to his advocacy as governor for expanded health care.
Whatever advantage Blagojevich may have gained could easily be erased over the next few days.
“As Blagojevich starts doing his dance in answer to those questions, Reid (Schar) is going to pull out the FBI tape transcripts and read from them,” Cramer said. “You got a glimpse of Reid’s tone – and he’s going to be crisp and clear. He’s not backing down.”
Cramer’s prediction: That after a day or two of relentless cross-examination, the advantage will be clearly back with prosecutors.
“Coming off the stand,” Cramer said, “Blagojevich could be shaking.”