Blagojevich Faces Tough Questions From Prosecution
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
This time is different. After several years and one hung jury, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has taken the stand for the first time. He began testifying last week in his retrial on 20 federal corruption charges. Blagojevich talked about everything from politics to love. And then, late yesterday, the fireworks began when prosecutors were finally able to cross-examine him.
From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper tells us what happened next.
DAVID SCHAPER: For two and a half years, Rod Blagojevich has been proclaiming his innocence to anyone who will listen, but avoiding any forum where he might face tough questions. Now, the hard questions are unavoidable.
Federal prosecutor Reid Shar pounced on the former Democratic governor in this long-awaited cross-examination, raising his voice as he asked: Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct? Defense attorneys objected, the judge overruled, and Blagojevich answered yes. He was convicted last year of lying to the FBI in his first trial, which resulted in a hung jury on the rest of the charges.
Shar continued: Is it fair to say that within hours of being convicted, you went and lied again - referring to Blagojevich's post-verdict news conference last August. Then, near-chaos ensued as, throughout the hour-long cross-examination, defense attorneys shouted objections even as Blagojevich continued to answer questions anyway. The judge at times scolded Blagojevich to just answer yes or no without long preambles and explanations.
Even Blagojevich himself got testy. In one exchange, prosecutor Shar asked: Is it true that as a politician you not infrequently lied to the public? I tried to be as truthful as possible, Blagojevich responded. Reminded that he tried to plant a false story in a gossip column, Blagojevich testified that was a misdirection play in politics. It was a lie, Shar stated; it was untrue said Blagojevich. It was a lie, Shar said again. Blagojevich responded: I don't see it that way.
Professor JOHN NORTHCOTT (John Marshall School of Law): Well, I think that you would clearly have to score this for the government in this situation.
SCHAPER: Criminal defense lawyer John Northcott(ph), who also teaches at Chicago's John Marshall School of Law, was watching the fireworks.
Prof. NORTHCOTT: I think there was a palpable sense of frustration on the part of the jury that he was being a little bit too defensive in trying to evade the question. And I think that this is a situation which he is going to have to turn around in short order.
SCHAPER: The former governor had spent the better part of five days on the stand, talking about his humble upbringing, how he awkwardly tried to fit into college, how he met his wife, and his fascination with history. And Blagojevich steadfastly tried to refute the 20 criminal charges against him, including that he tried to personally profit from his power to appoint a senator to fill the seat vacated by President Obama.
But he stumbled a bit when trying to explain what he meant in this infamous comment captured by FBI wiretaps.
Mr. ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D-Illinois, Former Governor): I mean I've got this thing and its (CENSORED) golden, and I'm just not giving it up (CENSORED) nothing.
SCHAPER: Blagojevich repeatedly apologized to the jury for his vulgar language and said he meant it was a golden opportunity to make a deal that would do good for the people of Illinois.
Mr. JAMES MATSUMOTO (Former Jury Foreman): As far as comparison between the two trials, it's like night and day.
SCHAPER: James Matsumoto was the jury foreman in Blagojevich's first trial. He says the government streamlined its case this time around, making it less complex, and Blagojevich testifying is certainly a game changer.
But Matsumoto won't guess at how this jury is reacting to the blistering cross-examination, which continues when the Blagojevich trial resumes Monday.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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