Updated: October 1, 2011 12:37AM
Let’s face it. Most of us have believed Rod Blagojevich was guilty since the day he was arrested, if not before, and a jury coming to the same conclusion all these years later feels a little anti-climactic.
Yet, I’ll admit to being as relieved as Blagojevich was stunned when U.S. District Judge James Zagel’s court clerk read that first guilty verdict and then the next and the next — breaking the hold-your-breath tension that had built inside the courtroom in the preceding moments.
To be clear, there was no happiness from where I sat watching, though certainly no sadness either, just a strong sense of relief that a jury of the former governor’s peers listened to all the evidence and agreed that this was illegal conduct that we should not tolerate in Illinois.
That it took two whole trials to get to this point was the main reason that each guilty pronouncement was like pounding a stake throughout whatever doubts had been created by the outcome of the former governor’s first trial — when the jury couldn’t reach a verdict on 23 of 24 counts.
Guilty on 17 of 20 counts meant never having to say you’re sorry for prosecuting Blagojevich, either in the courtroom or the news media.
Finally, we can put him behind us and move on. No more pistachio commercials or reality television shows or self-serving autobiographies.
That’s not to suggest in any way that we put our political corruption problems behind us by sending Blagojevich to prison.
I look around and see some positive signs that weren’t there when we first sent Blagojevich to the governor’s mansion in 2002. We seem to be electing somewhat more honest folks to high public office, for one thing, not that they’re necessarily saints but definitely upgrades. (Though I’ve got to remind myself we didn’t know how bad Blagojevich would turn out to be at first either.) We’re also seeing more structural reforms enacted, not that they go far enough.
But I also see plenty that hasn’t changed. Illinois government is still at its core a place where money talks and insiders have the upper hand. You don’t change the whole system by getting rid of the guy at the top.
The forewoman of the jury said the verdict “sent a pretty clear message” about what the jurors thought of Illinois politics, and I’d agree public officials in Illinois have definitely been put on notice to be more careful. In being more careful, some will probably be more honest, but others will look at the Blagojevich example and probably just learn how to better avoid prosecution.
I can tell you there are any number of highly placed officials at both the state and local levels who are better known for their ability to walk a fine line than for their ethics. What made Blagojevich an anomaly was never so much what he did in looking for rewards for himself in exchange for government actions but in how sloppily and aggressively he went about it, which opened him up to the wiretaps that sunk him.
The alternative outcome to Monday’s verdict, of course, was that the jury might have found Blagojevich not guilty, and I sure wasn’t ready for all the soul-searching that would have unleashed, not to mention the gloating on his part.
Even another hung jury would have been a problem. With each additional day that the second jury went without a verdict, I’d started coming to grips with the possibility I would have to write that federal prosecutors should drop any further prosecution of Blagojevich. A third trial would have been unfair. A defendant can’t afford to take on the federal government that many times.
This was fair. Blagojevich got his chance to testify. It was also evident from hearing the jurors talk afterward that they had listened carefully to the defense and that some had not only found the former governor likable but also took his side in the early stages of their deliberations, only to eventually be swayed by the totality of the evidence.
Strangely enough, part of what made this trial fair also pointed to what’s wrong with Illinois government. When the jurors were asked how their work had been affected by the first trial, they said it hadn’t, with one juror volunteering: “That’s why we’re here, because we didn’t know anything about it.”
Fixing Illinois government will require its citizens paying attention.