Blagojevich takes the stand at corruption trial
CHICAGO (AP) — An unmuzzled Rod Blagojevich launched the campaign of his life Thursday, taking the witness stand at his corruption trial in an attempt to sway a jury with the same charm and chattiness that helped him win two contests for Illinois governor.
Looking directly at the jurors who will decide his fate, Blagojevich tried to connect with them by laying out nearly every detail of his biography: his upbringing, his first job, the insecurity of his college years. He described himself as a flawed dreamer grounded in his parents' working-class values and at one point choked up as he talked about the day he met his wife, Patti.
Not until five hours into his testimony did Blagojevich and his attorneys begin to address the 20 charges of corruption against him. On the first of what could be several days on the stand, he was not asked about the most explosive allegation — that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old Senate seat for personal gain.
But he denied other charges, saying he never tried to leverage a state school grant to squeeze Rahm Emanuel's brother, a Hollywood agent, to hold a fundraiser for him. He also denied trying to shake down a racetrack owner.
And he denied a damning allegation made in testimony the previous day when Rep. Jesse Jackson accused him of withholding a state job for Jackson's wife at least partly because Jackson had refused to give him a $25,000 campaign donation.
"I don't remember anything remotely like that," Blagojevich said.
Indignant one minute, laughing the next, in tears after that, witness Blagojevich clearly was trying to humanize himself for the jury to counteract the blunt, profane, seemingly greedy Blagojevich heard on FBI wiretap recordings played in court by prosecutors over the last several weeks.
As a legal strategy, he may also have been attempting to demonstrate his penchant for endless talk. That would help lay the groundwork for his attorneys' argument that Blagojevich's long discussions with aides about fundraising and getting a top job for himself or his wife were just a politician's unceasing ramblings.
That, legal experts say, could offset the enormous gamble of having Blagojevich testify, which will expose him to withering cross examination by prosecutors in the days to come.
"They see him tell about his life. They see him cry. It makes (the jury) think that this is not the type of person who should be convicted of these things, (but) as a decent guy who maybe made some mistakes," said Joel Levin, a former federal prosecutor who helped convict former Illinois Gov. George Ryan of corruption. "They see him as a human being instead of this anonymous figure."
"Every case where the defendant testified, the case rises and falls on the testimony of the defendant," Levin said. "To a large extent, the jury sets aside the other evidence and focuses on the defendant. Now it's just, 'Is this guy telling us the truth?'"
If convicted on all 20 counts, Blagojevich faces a maximum prison term of 350 years. Federal guidelines would dictate he get far less, though judges can consider multiple factors in sentencing, including whether the defendant took the stand and lied.
Putting a defendant on the stand is always considered highly risky — in part because it opens the person to intense cross-examination later. But Blagojevich's defense clearly hoped the former governor's political skills and personal charm would help counteract the government's three-week case.
A jury deadlocked on most charges after Blagojevich's first trial last year, when defense attorneys rested without calling a single witness. For months before that trial, Blagojevich had insisted he would take the stand, then declined to do so.
The 54-year-old former governor's demeanor shifted several times over the course of the day. He initially appeared nervous, then became increasingly confident as he went off on tangents about decades-old boxing matches and historical events, then turned subdued again as questioning turned away from the personal to the professional.
While he could remember in minute detail the night that he met his wife, Patti, in 1988, or the first time he saw Ryne Sandberg play for the Cubs years ago, his recollection of details about his more recent dealings as governor were far fuzzier, and he began saying "I don't remember" more often.
At one point, he offered an apology to jurors, who had listened to his famously profane tirades caught on FBI wiretaps that form the heart of the government's case.
"I'd like to apologize to the men and women for those words ... when you hear them, it makes you wince," he told jurors. "When I hear myself swearing like that, I am an F-ing jerk."
Blagojevich described his love of basketball, his job as a shoeshine boy and how his father left the family at one point to work on the Alaskan oil pipeline. Another time, he even recited poetry.
Prosecutors objected only twice before midday, otherwise allowing Blagojevich to meander far from the accusations for which he is on trial, likely aware that too much objection to the defendants' own testimony may make jurors think they are trying to stop him from telling his side.
But by the afternoon, their patience had clearly run out. Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar stood up to object at least 30 times, whenever Blagojevich began an off-topic ramble.
Jurors also appeared to grow weary. By the afternoon, their eyes left the witness stand and roamed the courtroom more often. They tuned back in during Blagojevich's repeated denials of wrongdoing, though, furiously taking notes each time he answered "no" to a question about whether he had committed any crimes.
Blagojevich spoke in detail about how his Serbian immigrant father had fought the Nazis during World War II. Asked how his family background influenced him, he said, "It gives you a certain sense of values and people needing help. ... I picked up my dad's propensity to dream."
He also told jurors he often felt inferior compared with other students during his time at Northwestern University, going into detail about dressing in 1970s disco style at the time — while other kids wore preppy shirts "with alligators."
"A lot of what I am, deep down, there are a lot of insecurities," he said. "That can drive you ... and also have petty sides, flaws, fears." Another time, in talking about his fondness for jogging, he said, "I have a vain quality ... a certain narcissism."
Blagojevich became most emotional as he pointed across the room and began to talk about the day that he met his wife, Patti, who sat with tears streaming down her cheeks. When Blagojevich stopped and appeared overcome, the judge ordered a break.
Associated Press Writer Don Babwin contributed to this report.