The Blagojevich Case: Like the Ali-Frazier Rivalry?

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Kiichiro Sato / AP

Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich at Chicago's federal court building on Aug. 17, 2010, after he was found guilty of lying to federal agents

On the last day of jury deliberations in the trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, defense attorney Sam Adam Jr. paced the courthouse cafeteria in his three-piece suit. Pausing near the trash bin, he began to pontificate. "This is what I went to law school for," he said. "This is what I signed up for as an American citizen ... This is bigger than Sam Adam Jr. This is bigger than Rod Blagojevich. This is a whole system, if you think about it. We are sending young American boys into the world, to Iraq, to die for this."

As the gaggle of reporters around him grew, Adam joked it would be Danny DeVito who would play his role if this trial became a Lifetime movie. But really it felt like Joe Frazier anticipating his bout with Muhammad Ali. That would be Ali-Frazier I in 1971 — and despite Adam's propensity for talking big, it was someone else who played the role of Ali: Patrick Fitzgerald, the mostly invisible master of the prosecution in the case, one of the most successful — and relentless — of the U.S. attorneys, who had put one other Illinois governor, George Ryan, behind bars and had shaken such media giants as the New York Times and TIME magazine with his pursuit of the Valerie Plame case. Fitzgerald is not incapable of bombast himself. When he ordered Blagojevich's arrest in December 2008, Fitzgerald said it was to prevent "a political-corruption crime spree. We acted to stop that crime spree," which included selling the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by then President-elect Barack Obama. It was, said Fitzgerald, the "kind of conduct [that] would make [Abraham] Lincoln roll over in his grave." There was no more formidable prosecutor in the country; Fitzgerald was, in the eyes of many, the heavyweight legend of law enforcement, a contemporary Eliot Ness.

A few hours after Adam made his Danny DeVito comparison, word quietly spread that the jury had reached a verdict. A mass exodus from the cafeteria flooded the bank of elevators, as a crowd of reporters, gadflies, attorneys and legal students swelled outside the courtroom on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Building, the U.S. Northern District Courthouse. Federal marshals changed out of their polo shirts into button-up suits. The calm trio of prosecutors — Reid Schar, Chris Niewoehner and Carrie Hamilton — walked in, followed by sweating defense attorneys and calm FBI agents, including Robert Grant, special agent in charge of the Chicago office of the FBI, and Daniel Cain, the lead investigator — both spent six years taping the former governor and his older brother and co-defendant, Robert Blagojevich. Fitzgerald stealthily tried to blend in, hopeful that his protégés' efforts would bear fruit.

The Blagojevich brothers arrived shortly after. Their relationship was strained by the trial; indeed, they started off with separate defense teams. After pausing for a drink of water, Robert Blagojevich said, "I got here as soon as I could." The former governor arrived 20 minutes later with wife Patti, asking the public for one last prayer. Moments seemed like hours. Inside the courtroom, the defendant siblings sat still, each with folded hands. Rod Blagojevich gave his wife a finger waggle and a wink before the jury filed in, slowly.

Oh, back to Ali-Frazier I. Frazier won.

After the notice from the jury, U.S. District Judge James Zagel paused slowly. The jury, he said, was only able to reach a unanimous verdict on one of the 24 counts: making false statements to the FBI, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Adam took his glasses off, wiped his eyes and began rubbing Rod Blagojevich's back. Robert, true to his military background, ever stoic, sat back in disbelief. Cain's face turned bright red. The prosecutors were clearly upset. Seven weeks of trial, huge amounts of evidence that reached beyond the sale of the Obama Senate seat to attempted extortion of tollway and racetrack officials as well as a hospital CEO, were for naught.

For Adam, it has been the most exhilarating of victories. Sure, the jury found his client guilty of one count of lying to the FBI — an inexplicable, all right, stupid fib by Blagojevich, who basically said that he tried not to know who his political donors were. Every politician knows who his financial backers are — and knowing it isn't a crime. But that's what the jury found him guilty of. Maximum penalty: about five years. Martha Stewart was guilty of the same and spent five months in prison. Otherwise, the other 23 counts — including the most serious racketeering charges — were hung. The ex-governor could have spent more than 400 years in prison if he had gotten the maximum, guilty on everything. It was a no decision that put Adam in the brightest light, bigger yet than winning the case for his last celebrity client, the singer R. Kelly in his child-pornography trial. This one was big. "It's one of the largest cases I've ever seen," Judge Zagel said earlier in the trial, on par, he said, with the mass-murder case of Richard Speck, who killed student nurses in the 1960s.

There were two key moments in the trial that probably contributed to the inability of the jurors to reach unanimity (the word is that it was just one juror who wouldn't budge — that's all it takes). The first was older brother Robert's feisty performance on the stand under fierce prosecutorial questioning, refusing to admit he did anything wrong, basically running interference for his brother. The second was Adam's argument that, in essence, his client was a loudmouth but incapable of actually committing the crimes he contemplated out loud. Indeed, outside observers said much the same: a lot of talk but no proof of successful extortion. Blagojevich plans to appeal his false-statement conviction.

As with the legendary Ali-Frazier battles, the first fight is followed by a second and a third. Declaring a mistrial on the 23 counts, Judge Zagel gave the prosecution until Aug. 26 to formally announce plans to retry Blagojevich and his brother. Fitzgerald was quick to say, "We intend to retry, that is it." He refused to answer questions. When asked about a retrial, Schar immediately said, "We will start tomorrow." Defense attorney Sam Adam Sr., who worked with his son on Rod Blagojevich's defense, declared, "This guy, Fitzgerald, is a master at indicting people for noncriminal activity. This guy is nuts." Fighting words. His son followed up by imploring reporters to ask Fitzgerald one question: "Why are we spending $25 [million] to $30 million on a retrial when they couldn't prove it the first time?"

Fight fans will of course remember that after Ali-Frazier I, both men were so battered that they had to check into the hospital. Emerging from the courtroom elated but knowing the task ahead, Sam Adam Jr. headed to the microphone to give his press statement. When asked about how he was feeling, he said, "Not so good right now."