CHICAGO (AP) -- Chicago's top federal prosecutor went too far in saying last year that the conduct of then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich "would make Lincoln roll over in his grave," a prominent former judge said Thursday.
Abner J. Mikva, a former federal judge and congressman, told an American Bar Association panel that the remark by U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald on the day of Blagojevich's arrest could prejudice the pool of possible jurors if the case goes to trial.
"I certainly don't like the prosecutor coming out and trying the case (at a news conference) and possibly tainting the jury pool, and in the case of Rod Blagojevich he hadn't even indicted him yet," Mikva said.
Such a news conference is guaranteed to "generate so much publicity that it's part of the problem" of making sure that trials are fair, he said.
Mikva told reporters after the panel adjourned that he has a very favorable opinion of Fitzgerald but that the prosecutor made a mistake by using emotional language.
"The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave," Fitzgerald said the day of the Dec. 9 arrest. He also said Blagojevich had gone on "a political corruption crime spree." And Robert D. Grant, head of the FBI's Chicago office, told the same news conference that if Illinois "is not the most corrupt state in the United States it's certainly one hell of a competitor."
Blagojevich's attorneys complained afterward that that such remarks were unfair and said Fitzgerald should be removed from the case. They haven't brought up the issue since then.
Mikva was speaking at a panel on official corruption investigations as the ABA's annual meeting got under way,
Most other members of the panel agreed that it is important for people to understand what is happening in the criminal justice system but that news conferences before a person is on trial can be a serious problem.
"I think that the indictment should be the news conference," said Judge Paul L. Friedman of U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, suggesting that reporters should get their information about the case from the indictment and prosecutors should not add facts not contained in that document.
A former Blagojevich attorney who spoke on the panel, Edward M. Genson, said that prosecutors have long held news conferences that directed attention to major corruption cases.
He cited one recent case in which a prosecutor compared a former Chicago police official who was just indicted to Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone.
"And now you have a 24-hour news cycle and the Internet and bloggers who aren't going to think about any kind of journalistic ethics," Genson said. He said that merely amplifies the black eye that defendants end up getting.
Genson said he had been about to go to court to protest what prosecutors said about Blagojevich when the governor himself began holding numerous news conferences - which drew a laugh from the audience.
The moderator of the panel, former federal prosecutor Patrick M. Collins, started the session by playing a video emphasizing the amount of corruption in Illinois in recent years. Former governor George H. Ryan is in federal prison for racketeering and fraud, and Blagojevich is facing racketeering charges for allegedly trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat and illegally pressuring people for campaign contributions.