CHICAGO — A federal judge has agreed to delay the second corruption trial of ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich by nearly five months – a ruling that may come as a relief to some candidates in Chicago's mayoral race, including former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
Judge James Zagel switched the trial to April 20 from January, saying he agreed with Blagojevich's attorneys that the sharply downsized defense team needed more time to "retool" its defense "in substance, tone and tenure" after jurors deadlocked on most counts during the first trial.
The names of two potential mayoral candidates, Emanuel and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., arose at the first trial, and each could potentially be called as a witness at a retrial. The rescheduling means the trial will now begin after the Feb. 22 mayoral election and a potential runoff on April 5.
Emanuel resigned his White House job and is currently carrying out a "listening tour" before formally jumping into the race. Jackson has not publicly ruled out a run but recently faced negative revelations about his alleged involvement in plans to raise money for Blagojevich and about a female "social acquaintance."
Before Judge Zagel announced his ruling on the delay at a Friday status hearing, defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky briefly mentioned Emanuel – saying his expected prominence in the news during mayoral campaigning in January could affect a jury.
Zagel seemed to dismiss that notion, saying that in deciding whether to push the trial back, "I really cannot consider as a significant factor the mayoral election."
At his retrial, Blagojevich faces 23 charges, including that he sought to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat for a top job or campaign cash. Jurors at his first 2 1/2-month trial agreed only on one of 24 counts, convicting him of lying to the FBI.
A fund the ex-governor tapped to pay more than a dozen attorneys and aides for his first trial is empty, and with taxpayers now footing the bill, Zagel ruled earlier he could have just two attorneys and a paralegal.
The two remaining attorneys, Sheldon Sorosky and Aaron Goldstein, aren't as flamboyant as former lead attorney Sam Adam Jr. – something Zagel appeared to allude to when he said he foresaw a change in tone and tenure.
"The universe has changed a little," Zagel said Friday. "You really have to shuffle out things attorneys did initially but (now) want to change."
The defense team also includes Lauren Kaeseberg, who is an attorney but will work as Blagojevich's paralegal.
Prosecutor Reid Schar argued against a delay of several months, saying attorneys should be much further along in preparations since the initial trial only ended in August.
"There's continuity (in trial proceedings) and there's time," he said.
But Sorosky said another complication was that he and other defense attorneys had already put off other trials and have a backlog of clients in other cases demanding their attention.
"There were many other clients who were saying, 'The Blagojevich trial is great, but what about my trial?'" Sorosky told Zagel.
Zagel often ruled against the defense during the first trial, and he had previously sounded skeptical about complaints the defense didn't have enough time to prepare. Defense attorneys looked pleasantly surprised at Zagel's ruling, leaving the courtroom smiling.
Emanuel hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing in the Blagojevich case.
One aide to Blagojevich testified at the first trial that the governor wanted him to tell Emanuel, then a congressman, that he would not release a grant for a school in Emanuel's district unless Emanuel's Hollywood-agent brother raised campaign cash for the governor.
There was never a fundraiser, but analysts have said that having his name associated with the retrial would not be a plus in a campaign.