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Editorial: Those cleared in court shouldn’t be wiped out defending themselves

8-17-2010---Rob Blagojevich outside Federal Building after verdict was read---Sun-Times phoby Tom Cruze

8-17-2010---Rob Blagojevich outside the Federal Building after the verdict was read---Sun-Times photo by Tom Cruze

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Updated: July 3, 2012 10:41AM

The idea behind our trial-by-jury system is that if you’re innocent of the charges against you, you should go free.

By free, most people would mean free to go back to your life the way it was before.

But as recent comments by Robert Blagojevich, brother of our former governor, remind us, that may not always be the case.

Defending yourself in a criminal trial — particularly in some of the long, complex proceedings in federal court — can run up huge legal bills. And good luck getting a refund, even if you are acquitted.

Speaking to the Chicago Bar Association last week, Robert Blagojevich said charges brought by federal prosecutors cost him nearly $1 million — and his reputation — even though the government dropped the case against him after a jury couldn’t agree on a verdict.

Most people would consider a fine of $1 million and a lost reputation a high price to pay, even if they were found guilty. Yet Robert Blagojevich never was convicted of anything. That doesn’t seem right.

We’re not here to re-argue the facts of the Blagojevich case. But everyone should agree that the innocent among us should not be at risk of losing all we have — including our reputations and bank accounts — just to defend ourselves against charges that turn out to be unfounded.

The right to a day in court doesn’t mean much if you can’t afford to exercise it.

Robert Blagojevich, along with his then-governor brother, was indicted in 2008 on five counts involving a scheme to sell an open Illinois Senate seat to the highest bidder. In 2010, a jury deadlocked on the charges against Robert and most of the charges against his brother and co-defendant, Rod. Rod was convicted at a second trial last year.

Sometimes, building a case requires going after the small fry first. That’s fair, as long as the charges brought against those people are for clear-cut crimes.

Yet Robert Blagojevich echoed complaints of others who felt they were indicted primarily as a way to force them to testify against someone else.

No one should go on trial for anyone’s crimes but his own.

The vast majority of cases are settled by plea bargains, a system that has been criticized as going lightly on the guilty and pressuring the innocent to plead guilty to avoid far worse punishment.

The focus of every case should be just one thing: justice.

Prosecuting cases is a difficult — and important — job. We rely on prosecutors to keep us safe.

But we also rely on them to be fair. They have incredible power over citizens’ lives. That power should be used wisely and justly.

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