Search on for Unbiased Jurors in Blagojevich Case
The judge and attorneys in Rod Blagojevich's corruption retrial on Monday were set to resume the daunting task of selecting jurors who can put aside what they've heard about the high-profile case and give the former Illinois governor a fair trial.
Judge James Zagel was expected to individually question up to 40 more people out of a pool of more than 100 potential jurors to assess their suitability. Each filled out a 38-page jury questionnaire as the retrial started last week.
The impeached governor's first trial ended last year with jurors deadlocked on all but one count of lying to the FBI. At the retrial, the 54-year-old still faces 20 charges, including accusations he sought to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job.
The first day of individual questioning of would-be jurors on Thursday revealed most either held unfavorable views of politicians in general or of Blagojevich in particular. All had heard at least something about last year's trial.
Zagel spoke to 22 potential jurors Thursday and, by day's end, dismissed 11 on various grounds, including that weeks of jury duty would hit their families hard financially.
But he refused defense requests to send home several people who seemed biased against Blagojevich, including a retired auto shop owner who wrote that, "Based on news accounts, my personal bias is - he is guilty." Zagel said he accepted the man's assurances in court that he could set aside his preconceptions and focus solely on the evidence.
Those kept in the jury pool won't necessarily end up in the jury box because both sides retain the right to dismiss some jurors without providing the judge a reason. The defense can do so 13 times while the prosecution has nine peremptory challenges.
Jury selection is an inexact science. Blagojevich lawyers may in some cases prefer jurors with a dim view of politicians if it means they're more likely to accept a long-held defense argument: that the twice-elected governor was merely engaged in wheeling and dealing that - while sometimes unseemly - is legal and par for the course in politics.
Blagojevich himself has seemed closely involved scrutinizing potential panelists, scribbling notes on a yellow pad as would-be jurors answered questions. His wife, Patti, also has taken detailed notes sitting on a nearby spectators' bench.
Those still in the jury pool include a former state prosecutor, a substitute teacher who said she didn't like her job and a recently retired maintenance man who told the court how he once saved up $1,500 to pay to drive a Formula One racecar 177 mph.
Another person Zagel refused to dismiss was a man convicted of assault and battery who had to attend an anger-management course as part of his sentence. The man, holding a microphone as he answered the judge's questions, hesitated when Zagel asked if those courses had helped.
"You didn't stand up and throw the mic at me, so it helped a little," Zagel said, smiling.
Zagel has said he wants to have 12 jurors and several alternates impaneled by Wednesday, meaning opening arguments could start that day or Thursday. The retrial is not expected to last as long as the first 2 1/2-month trial, in part because prosecutors have streamlined their case by dropping complex racketeering charges.
(Photo by Robert Wildeboer/IPR)