Illinois Public Media News
18 months after his arrest on federal corruption charges, jury selection begins Thursday in Chicago in the trial of Rod Blagojevich. The former Illinois governor is charged with trying to trade state decisions and appointments for cash and political favors --- including an appointment to the President Obama's old Senate seat.
A University of Illinois law professor says a major point of contention in the Blagojevich trial will be the link between favors granted by the former governor and requests for campaign donations and favors.
Professor Andrew Leipold says he thinks arguments by the defense will not focus on what Blagojevich said, but on what those statements mean.
"When the former governor said X, did he mean, 'and if you don't give me money I won't do it', says Leipold. "Or was he discussing two different topics: 'I'm prepared to do this'; and perhaps separately, 'Are you going to be contributing to my campaign, because we're doing a lot of good work, and I would value your support'."
Leipold says that question will make testimony by someone like former Blagojevich aide Lon Monk especially important ... because he would be in a position to know the former governor's intentions. Monk is cooperating with federal prosecutors in the Blagojevich trial.
Meanwhile, while opening arguments in the trial are still days away, Blagojevich has been make his cause before the public,w ith TV and radio appearances, and the publication of a book.
Leipold says it's an unusual move for a defendant in a trial.
"The notion that your client would be out going on talk shows and on the radio and on reality television is normally not something that defense lawyers would encourage", says Leipold. "Anything the governor says in any of his many, many, many public appearances are fair game, in the sense that if he says something that turns out to be different that what he says at trial, then he's subject to impeachment by that."
And Leipold says it's clear that Blagojevich intends to testify in his own defense at the trial. It will be Blagojevich's word against his words recorded in wiretapped conversations that prosecutors say show the former governor engaging in a "public corruption crime spree".
But Leipold says he expects the defense to argue that Blagojevich's requests for money and political favors were not connected to any of his actions as governor.
A federal judge in Chicago today turned down a last-minute request for a delay in former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's corruption trial and told his attorneys to get ready to start picking a jury tomorrow.
The impeached Illinois governor's racketeering and fraud trial is set to get under way following 18 months of skirmishing in the courts and the media.
Blagojevich and his brother, Nashville, Tenn., businessman Robert Blagojevich, have pleaded not guilty. They're accused of scheming to profit from the governor's power to fill the U.S. Senate seat that President Barack Obama vacated following his November 2008 election.
Blagojevich's lawyers contend they've been swamped by as many as nine million pages of documents, 270 hours of tapes and summaries of interviews with more than 700 people. They say they haven't had time to prepare.
The Illinois Liquor Control Commission admits some changes need to be made in laws concerning happy hour promotions at bars. The Commission dismissed some of those violations at its first-ever meeting in Urbana Tuesday. Most of the tickets were issued during the weekend of March 5th, when many University of Illinois students and guests celebrate 'Unofficial' St. Patrick's Day. Acting Commission Chairman Stephen Schnorf says it was never the panel's intention to punish a bar for misinterpreting the law.
"If we saw things that we thought were encouraging binge drinking or encouraging underage consumption, we wouldn't be very patient with that," said Schnorf. "In these cases, it looked like there were some legitimate misunderstandings, and so we want a little more clarity before we start doing rigorous enforcement in some of these areas of the happy hour law," The violations at Campustown bars like Kam's and Legends were related to concerns that they were offering discounts on refills, or that patrons gave off the impression that they were allowed to engage in binge drinking by purchasing two drinks at once.
Kam's owner Eric Meyer says happy hour laws have created confusion not only around campus area bars, but across the state. He says it's common knowledge that sports venues enable someone to purchase two drinks at once. "I think that's been a standard practice at most of our sporting venues." said Meyer. "We've been able to go up and grab two drinks everywhere we go. That's kind of common knowledge and this is probably an area that has not been enforced. I understand the agent's concern to enforce this during a weekend of great concern and potential binge drinking. I don't think that was the intention here of any of the individuals involved."
Most underage drinking violations handled by the state in Tuesday's 2-hour hearing concerned grocery and convenience stores in Champaign, Urbana, and Danville. Schnorf says the Liquor Control Commission's decision to hold hearings away from Springfield and Chicago was to accommodate bar owners and the attorneys representing them, letting them cut down on travel time.
Illinois' courts are in the process of getting an update for how judicial evidence is handled. Hearings will be held next week in Chicago and Springfield.
The rules the courts in Illinois follow when handling evidence are scattered in common law, statutes, and court decisions.
Most states have these rules outlined in one authoritative source, but not Illinois. Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald wants to change that, which is why he appointed a special committee to write a blueprint of the state's evidence rules.
This committee includes appellate judges, trial judges, law school professors, and legislators. The manual they've designed is intended to make the judicial process more efficient.
Supreme Court spokesperson Joe Tybor says a judge or lawyer could consult the legal manual to determine the validly of the defense's accusation based on previous rulings. "It should help any lawyer, any judge, and any client who needs information to make a decision on how to proceed," Tybor said. The Supreme Court would have to approve the final product.
Mahomet-Seymour school students are scheduled to return to school tomorrow after a threat prompted school officials to evacuate the schools and ultimately dismiss students for the day.
The district received the threat at about 9:00 this morning. The threat involving bombs and firearms originally came to the Mahomet police department, which notified the school district.
Superintendent Keith Oates says the school doesn't often receive bomb threats, and this threat is different from others they've received in the past:
"It's rare and usually it involves just one building or a specific location within a building. So this is a first for us as far as involving all buildings," Oates said
Oates said canine units from the U of I and Urbana police departments swept the buildings and found nothing.
According to Oates, the district's crisis protocol was followed. It includes removing students to two churches. Oates says all of the students were picked up from these off-campus locations.
State funding problems have prompted two agencies that deal with Champaign County women in crisis to consider consolidating.
A Woman's Fund shelters victims of domestic violence and their children. In July, it and the foundation that funds it expect to be acquired by The Center for Women in Transition, which helps homeless women and children. Last fall A Woman's Fund was almost forced to close when state government payments were backlogged.
But now the group's human resources director, Tara Bossert, says it will be part of a more financially-stable agency, and the merger should be a good fit.
"The services that we provide and the services that the Center for Women in Transition provide are different, yet a lot of our clients overlap and a lot of those clients utilize both services," Bossert said. "So as far as the ease of using those services, we'll just become a better situation for a lot of our clients."
John Sullivan, who directs the Center for Women in Transition, says both agencies serve slightly different purposes, so a consolidation should not lead to job losses.
"The whole goal is to maintain services and make sure domestic violence services remain in our community," said Sullivan. "The staff that are providing those services at the moment, of course we want to keep them on. There may be savings in terms of administration. On the other hand, since we're adding more services, we're going to have to expand our administration."
Still, Sullivan says social service providers in general will see tough times over the next couple of years. He says merger discussions have taken place for about six months, since A Woman's Fund was threatened with the closure.
A Champaign County judge has set bond at $1 million for a Marion County man accused in a collision that killed a Champaign woman.
Circuit Court Judge John Kennedy set bond Friday for 32-year-old Robert Eagan of Salem, who is charged with aggravated driving under the influence, driving under the influence, and driving while his license was revoked. Eagan was arrested after a collision in the central part of Champaign late Thursday night. Urbana Police had tried to stop Eagan at Lincoln and University Avenues, but he didn't stop after reaching city limits. The crash occurred moments later at Springfield and Elm streets. Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup has identified the victim as 40-year-old Kimberly Kueffler. Kueffler was driving a vehicle that was hit by a pickup truck. Eagen was being held under suicide watch last night. It was not known if he had an attorney.
The attorney representing Kiwane Carrington's family in their civil lawsuit against Champaign Police says Thursday's decision to suspend the police officer involved to 30 days' unpaid suspension doesn't necessarily make their case stronger.
But James Montgomery Junior says he plans to build the family's case on the testimony of the only other witness to the shooting other than the officers - the teenager who was with Carrington, Jeshaun Manning-Carter.
"While Officer Norbits claims he doesn't remember them (certain alleged facts in the case that Montgomery wouldn't disclose), this young man does, and (he) will shed clear light on the fact that Kiwane Carrington was wrongfully shot, and there was some conduct there that went beyond accidental firing of the weapon."
Montgomery calls Officer Daniel Norbits' 30 day suspension a good first step toward picking up the pieces from the shooting. Yet another investigation of the police shooting incident - this one by the Justice Department -- is still in progress.
The officer who shot and killed a teenager during a scuffle behind a Champaign home last fall will be suspended without pay for 30 days.
Officer Daniel Norbits and Police Chief RT Finney had responded to a call on Vine Street last October 9th-in the ensuing confrontation with 15 year old Kiwane Carrington and another teen, Norbits' firearm went off, killing Carrington. The incident worsened already-tense relations between Champaign police and African-Americans in the city. 30 days unpaid suspension is the toughest discipline allowed short of termination under the city's union contact with police.
Retired McLean County judge John Freese was one of two outside experts asked to investigate the incident. Freese found that Officer Norbits violated police rules by not having enough control over his firearm with struggling with Carrington - namely, his trigger finger was improperly placed.
"While the officer was using his left hand to try to take Carrington to the ground, the weapon which was in his right hand had sufficient pressure placed on the trigger to discharge the weapon," Freese said. "And training would have expected the officer to have his finger indexed on the side of the weapon so it would be outside of the trigger guard."
City Manager Steve Carter also used an internal investigation to determine that Norbits failed to maintain control of the weapon. He believes the discipline fits the violation - it's the strongest punishment short of firing.
"The death of a person in Champaign-Urbana is a serious matter for sure," Carter said. "The public has some right to expect our police officers to handle their weapons in a way that doesn't endanger the public."
The other outside investigator in the case, retired Urbana police chief Eddie Adair, says the indexing technique is taught to all officers, but it should be reiterated every year to rookies and veterans alike.
"We see this as an opportunity to improve on how we administer our training," said Adair. "Because even if it is a tragic incident, it's still an opportunity for us to learn as human beings. That's what's most important here."
The union representing Champaign Police issued a prepared statement saying it's extremely disappointed by Norbits' suspension. The Fraternal Order of Police labor council says Carrington brought about the tragedy through his own resistance.
In December State's Attorney Julia Rietz decided not to file criminal charges against Norbits or Finney. Earlier this month, the state's attorney's office dropped a juvenile charge against the other boy involved in the incident.
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich is continuing his attacks on the prosecutors who've hit him with corruption charges and says he isn't worried that a federal judge will slap a gag order on the case.
Blagojevich began his offensive Tuesday when he called the prosecutors "cowards and liars.'' He also challenged Chicago's U.S. attorney to meet him face to face in court if he's "man enough.''
On Wednesday, Blagojevich continued his campaign during an appearance on Chicago's WLS Radio. The Democrat accused the government of being "involved in a big cover-up'' and repeated his comments about prosecutors.
Blagojevich also dismissed the possibility that U.S. District Judge James Zagel could order him to stop talking about the case, saying "this is still the United States of America.''
Zagel has scheduled a hearing later in the day to discuss motions being filed in the case.
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