Witnesses Begin Testifying In Blagojevich Trial
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
Lincoln would turn over in his grave. Those are the words of a federal prosecutor in a Chicago when he announced corruption charges against the former governor of Illinois. Now, 18 months later, Rod Blagojevich has what he says he's been waiting for: his day in court. He faces several counts of extortion, bribery and fraud. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY: Ever since his arrest, Rod Blagojevich has taken whatever chance he could to profess his innocence. So before heading up to the courtroom, where attorneys were about to begin opening statements this week, Blagojevich and his wife Patty walked over to a group of waiting reporters.
Mr. ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Former Illinois Governor): This is an historic day, because now, today, the evidence will finally start to come out. Finally, you'll be able to hear the things I've been dying to tell you for the last year and a half.
CORLEY: In the courtroom, prosecutors used a large screen to flash pictures of Blagojevich and the aides who made up his inner circle, then charts of the alleged illegal shakedowns of a children's hospital, of race track owners, of road construction firms, of the attempt to auction off the Senate seat once held by President Obama.
As federal prosecutor Carrie Hamilton put it, the question Blagojevich would ask throughout his tenure as governor was what about me, as he began the hunt for campaign contributions and cash. Blagojevich's attorney Sam Adam, Jr., known for his colorful oratory, has disparaged the government's witnesses, including a former chief of staff for Blagojevich, one of the first to take the witness stand, who pleaded guilty and is testifying in hopes of getting a lighter sentence.
As Adam alternately whispered and shouted during his opening statements, the jury leaned in. Follow the money, he told them. Blagojevich, he thundered, is broke. He said in the biggest corruption case in Illinois, the former governor didnt take a dime.
Roosevelt University political scientist Paul Green, who was on hand for the opening statements, says it's clear the defense will fight every charge.
Professor PAUL GREEN (Roosevelt University): To me, from a non-lawyer perspective, if he was asking for all that money, raising all that money, how come he was broke? I mean (unintelligible) that's Chicago logic. And so I think that they're going to concede nothing.
CORLEY: Northwestern University Law Professor Albert Alschuler says all it will take for a defense victory is for one or two jurors to believe Rod Blagojevich is not guilty.
Professor ALBERT ALSCHULER (Northwestern University): So I suspect that Sam Adam, facing a strong government case, wants to kick the walls and make a lot of noise and perhaps convince a few jurors that it's all trumped up.
CORLEY: But Alschuler says the defense is not all noise and is actually strong when it puts the blame on Blagojevich advisers.
Prof. ALSCHULER: The government has a lot of evidence that these guys were running around telling people if you want to do business with the state of Illinois you'd better pony up some campaign contributions. But they have very little evidence suggesting that Rod Blagojevich put them up to it.
CORLEY: Alschuler says the problem is that the former governor is essentially a witness against himself on hundreds of hours of government wiretaps. Even so, the defense is portraying Blagojevich as a man victimized by his aides, described by his attorney as a C student, who surrounded himself with A students who fooled him.
Chicago-Kent Law School Professor Richard Kling says the Blagojevich team is trying to appeal to the common man, showing that Blagojevich was not living lavishly, that he was an average person working for the people of Illinois.
Professor RICHARD KLING (Chicago-Kent Law School): Whether it's a conscious strategy or it just fell into place, I think as long as the case has been going on since shortly after his arrest, it was sort of like I'm not doing anything wrong. I'm one of you. I've been fighting for you, the senior citizens. I've been fighting for you, the African-American community.
CORLEY: Kling says what may be harder to sell is that Blagojevich had no idea about public corruption.
Prof. KLING: The governor didnt get to be the governor by being a stupid man. He may be charged with doing stupid and illegal things, but I dont think anybody's going to believe for a moment, in spite of his appearances on Trump and some of the other things where the public would say, my god, does he have a clue, I dont think anybody's going to believe that he was clueless.
CORLEY: The defense has said former Governor Rod Blagojevich will take the stand to defend himself, a high-risk strategy, but one which Blagojevich has repeatedly said he'll take to clear his name.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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