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Women jurors no easier on Blagojevich

Updated: June 29, 2011 2:15AM

During the second trial of Rod Blagojevich, there was a persistent notion expressed in courthouse chatter that because the jury was made up of 11 women and just one man, it might be more soft-hearted toward our former governor.

The theory was fueled, in part, by the fact that in his first trial there was a split between the six men and six women on the jury. Some of the women had more problems with the prosecution’s case than did some of the men.

And one woman in particular, Jo Ann Chiakulas, received inordinate media scrutiny for being the lone vote against the government’s marquee charge that Blagojevich tried to sell Barack Obama’s former U.S Senate seat.

Asked last week by WTTW’s Elizabeth Brackett if women were “more sympathetic,” Chiakulas responded firmly: “I didn’t see any of that.”

What we have learned since the first trial is that Chiakulas, a 67-year-old retired state employee, is a thoughtful, intelligent person who said she “spent sleepless nights, searched my heart, looked at the transcripts and tapes.” But in the end, she found the prosecution’s case wanting.

Some of her fellow jurors, on some of the other charges, did as well.

The first jury convicted on only one of 24 charges.

The government, according to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, listened to that first jury. Prosecutors streamlined their case, simplified the charges and went after Blagojevich again.

This time, there were even more women on the jury. And this time, unlike at the first trial, Blagojevich took the stand. And did his level best to play to stereotype. He brought up repeatedly how much he cared about children, health care and mammograms for poor women.

“I really did feel that his testimony at times was manipulative, which I didn’t appreciate,” juror Karin Wilson told the Chicago Tribune. “I just wanted to hear the facts.”

And the facts led the second jury to convict him on 17 of 20 counts.

What have we learned? That juries, like snowflakes, are unique. That the same case can look different the second time around. And that a defendant who takes the witness stand can be a game-changer.

Jo ann Chiakulas was not a bleeding heart in the first trial. She simply took her assignment seriously, was unafraid to stand alone, and performed — as did every one of her fellow jurors — an enormous public service.

The same is true of the second jury. Though some of them said they wanted to like the personable Rod Blagojevich, the populist they saw on the witness stand just didn’t square with the guy they heard wheeling and dealing on undercover government wiretaps. And though they were keenly aware he had a young family, they understood that could not be a factor in their decision. Their duty was to look at the evidence and the law. Which they did.

Hard to remember, but it wasn’t that long ago that women were still being kept off juries. There have been plenty of court cases contesting that exclusion as recently as 1994, as Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Nancy S. Marder pointed out in a 2010 Chicago Law Bulletin article.

“If nothing else,” Marder wrote, “the recent [first] Blagojevich trial should remind us that there are jurors who serve diligently, deliberate respectfully, and render a verdict consistent with their oath.”

Regardless of gender.

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