Blagojevich: A Grand Finale of Theatrics in the Court

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Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich signs a copy of his 2009 book, The Governor, as he leaves court on July 26, 2010

At about 3:20 a.m. on Tuesday, the first person in a line of more than 60 people for the closing arguments in the Rod Blagojevich corruption trial was Dan Bender, a 64-year-old Chicago retiree who once owned a trucking business on the South Side of Chicago and has been writing legal briefs as a researcher for the past 15 years. "I wanted to come see this," he says. "The courtroom is theater, and a high-profile case like this is about as theatrical as it gets. It's the seventh game of the World Series, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup. Or the Super Bowl. Only it's one hundred times more rare." In fact, only about 25 public tickets would be handed out.

Bender and those fortunate enough to snag a ticket would be more than satisfied with the theatrics. There was fire-and-brimstone rhetoric from Blagojevich's defense attorney, Sam Adam Jr. (an expertise honed during Adam's successful defense of R&B star R. Kelly, who was acquitted of child-pornography charges in 2008); the defendant's staring-down of the prosecutor; laughter in the courtroom and admonitions from the judge; and finally, Blagojevich's wife's exit in tears.

"There is a big pink elephant in the room, and everybody knows it," Adam began, apparently referencing the unfulfilled promise from his opening statement that the former Illinois governor would testify. Adam apologized. "I may not be bright, I may be a fool, but I gave you my word," he said, telling the jury to blame him for not allowing Blagojevich to take the stand. "I didn't come up here in my opening statement and lie to you. I had no idea that in two months of trial, [the government] would prove nothing."

Adam declared that the expletive-filled FBI wiretaps of Blagojevich didn't prove anything criminal — certainly, he said, nothing to convict the former governor on 24 counts of racketeering, wire fraud, bribery and extortion charges, which could amount to 415 years in prison and $6 million in fines. The fault, Adam said, lies with Blagojevich's inner circle, which did not provide him with proper advice and enabled his talk of seeking political benefits from the power of his office. (One of those in the circle is Blagojevich's older brother Robert, a co-defendant, who has a separate legal team and faces 90 years and a $1.25 million fine for five counts of wire fraud, extortion conspiracy, attempted extortion and bribery conspiracy.)

"The governor of the state of Illinois has a responsibility to you, to you and you," Adam boomed as he pointed at the jurors. "Thousands of responsibilities." And with such a weight upon him, Adam continued, Blagojevich had to rely on the advice of well-educated aides like former deputy governor Bob Greenlee, a Yale graduate. Adam then ridiculed Greenlee as a yes-man who tried to disagree by agreeing, a disservice to the former governor. Adam used similar tropes to cast blame on a host of Blagojevich aides whom he said should have been stopgaps for the former governor, providing sound legal advice.

Adam said Blagojevich wasn't capable of the crimes he is charged with, saying the former governor was "not the sharpest knife in the drawer" and was an insecure talker who did only that: talk — about everything from his jealousy of President Obama to the potential decisions he could make. He was not capable of doing more, said Adam. "Is the [former] governor silly? No doubt," Adam said. "Jealous of President Barack Obama? Certainly, but he ain't corrupt." Was Blagojevich guilty of trying to sell Obama's Senate seat and extort the President of the United States? Said Adam: "Give me a break."

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