Is a predominantly female jury a good thing for Rod Blagojevich?
BY LARK TURNER Chicago Sun-Times June 16, 2011 7:42PM
Rod Blagojevich signs an autograph as he leaves the federal building last week. | Charles Rex Arbogast~AP
Updated: September 29, 2011 12:32AM
Statistically, it shouldn’t have happened this way.
Yet somehow, the jury deciding Rod Blagojevich’s fate is more than 90 percent female.
From more than 100 jurors questioned, 11 women and just one man are tackling 20 counts remaining against Blagojevich, charged with fraud, extortion and corruption.
Is that a good thing for the former governor?
Yes, according to a lawyer involved in Blagojevich’s first trial.
“I told Shelly [Sorosky, defense attorney], ‘Knock every man off,’” said Michael Ettinger, the former attorney for Robert Blagojevich, Rod’s brother, campaign fund manager and codefendant before prosecutors dropped charges against him last year. “If I was picking the jury, I’d have excused every man I could.”
JoAnn Chiakulas, the so-called “holdout” juror in Blagojevich’s first trial, said she hoped this year’s jury, with more female members, might be more open-minded and thoughtful, regardless of their final decision.
“The men totally dominated the discussion the last time,” Chiakulas said, “and a lot of the women were not treated very nicely.”
Chiakulas thought the prosecution hadn’t proved its case on Blagojevich’s Senate seat charges and stood her ground, with an 11-1 decision on those counts.
However, Chiakulas and other jurors interviewed by both defense lawyers and prosecutors after last year’s verdict said men were more willing than women to convict Blagojevich on the other charges he faced. Ultimately, the jury of six men and six women hung on 23 of 24 counts against the former governor, convicting him only of making a false statement.
Though lawyers and prosecutors said it’s unusual to have an 11-to-1 gender split on a jury, it’s always a possibility: jury pools are randomly selected, and aren’t required to have a gender balance, said Daniel Fitzsimmons, who helps select potential jurors at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. The pool of jurors questioned in Blagojevich’s case was heavily female.
After the random selection, a judge questions jurors and cuts those who may be biased in deciding the case. Later, lawyers can also get rid of a certain number of jurors for any reason.
Though gender alone won’t decide a case, jury consultant Howard Varinsky said women might be preferable for a defense team because, in his experience, they are more concerned with fairness.
“Men just say, ‘To hell with them,’” said Varinsky, who consulted on the trials of Timothy McVeigh and Martha Stewart, among others. “Guys are just quicker to condemn.”
Men “are jealous of other men” and would tend to feel more competitive with the ex-governor, Ettinger argued, particularly someone such as Blagojevich who was once politically successful.
“I just think women pay more attention to cases and situations than men,” he said. “Men wanna go home and drink beer. Men don’t like Rod.”
He said he couldn’t be sure whether Sorosky took his advice to cut men, but said it was likely.
Former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer called that a “stack the deck and see what happens” strategy, and said it’s a simplistic, though not necessarily unsuccessful, view of jury selection.
“If the defense theory is, ‘Rod can charm them,’ I don’t think that holds water,” he said. “Though gender weighs into it, on fraud and bribery I don’t know if one gender’s more predisposed to let bribery pass versus another one.”
Instead of worrying about gender, the prosecution wanted logical jurors in the box, who could connect the dots between dozens of phone calls and plenty of witnesses, Cramer said.
Jurors in criminal cases such as Blagojevich’s are much more likely to be influenced by their political views, including party affiliation, personal opinion of the defendant and, perhaps most importantly, feelings about political corruption, Varinsky argued.
Gender likely won’t play a role in the face of evidence against Blagojevich, who took the stand in his own defense, Cramer said.
“What it comes down to is, do you believe Blagojevich or do you not believe Blagojevich?” he asked. “And man or woman, I think his testimony was at times so absurd, I think we’ll see the truth.”