CHICAGO — Federal prosecutors asked a judge for permission Wednesday to dismiss racketeering charges against ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich as he heads to a retrial, trying to simplify a case that deadlocked jurors in the first trial complained was too hard to follow.
In the waning minutes of a pretrial status hearing, prosecutor Reid Schar surprised courtroom observers by telling U.S. District Judge James Zagel that the government wanted to streamline a case now crammed full of nearly two dozen counts. Accusations in the three charges prosecutors want dropped, he added, are duplicated in the 20 counts that would remain.
"It will make it a little less complicated," Schar said.
The charges prosecutors want to dismiss are racketeering, racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud. Zagel didn't immediately approve the move, but judges rarely prevent prosecutors from dropping charges.
Blagojevich himself did not attend Wednesday's hearing, but was quick to characterize the government's move to dismiss the three counts as good news.
"Today's developments in court are three steps in the right direction in what has been a long and arduous journey for my wife, for my children and for me," he said in a statement released a few hours after the hearing.
Even subtracting the three charges, however, Blagojevich still faces years, even decades in prison if convicted on counts that would stay. Each of 10 remaining wire fraud convictions, for instance, carries a maximum 20-year prison term – as does each extortion and extortion conspiracy charge.
The racketeering charge, the first count in the original indictment, epitomized what could be mind-numbing complexities for jurors – with more than 20 sub-points and multiple acts jurors had to try to fathom before rendering a verdict.
"Count one is probably the most complicated legal count there is – even lawyers don't always understand it," said Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago attorney with no link to the case. "Prosecutors are trying to take out the confusion."
The 54-year-old Blagojevich faces an April 20 retrial on charges that include trying to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat. At his first trial, jurors deadlocked on all but one count, convicting him of lying to the FBI.
At retrials, the government often tries to take stock of the strengths and weaknesses in a case, and Blagojevich prosecutors must have concluded the racketeering charge would only serve as an unwieldy drag – potentially hurting their chances of winning multiple convictions, Pissetzky added.
Defense attorneys portrayed the move as an admission that prosecutors didn't have a case – at least on the three counts.
"I think it shows that they think Blagojevich is innocent of those charges. Or why would they dismiss them?" defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky told reporters after the hearing.
"I don't necessarily see this as a victory for Blagojevich," he said.
All the allegations cited under the racketeering count would be included somewhere in the remaining charges, which include several wire fraud counts, bribery and attempted extortion, Pissetzky said.
The accusations that Blagojevich attempted to sell or trade Obama's old Senate seat does feature prominently in the racketeering count, for example. But that accusation also remains part of the conspiracy to commit extortion charge that would stay put.
"I don't think it means there'll be less evidence in the second trial – but there may be more direct evidence to prove each individual count," Pissetzky said. "It doesn't make presenting evidence easier, but it makes it easier to explain the case to jurors at the end of the trial."
In recent weeks, lawyers for Blagojevich have also filed motions seeking to have several corruption charges thrown out based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limited the scope of an anti-fraud law used by prosecutors nationwide to convict politicians.
Zagel set another status hearing for Thursday, during which he was expected grant the prosecution's request to drop the three charges.
Also Wednesday, Zagel rejected one defense motion to lift an order prohibiting attorneys from publicly releasing FBI wiretap evidence. He also put off a decision on another defense motion to toss several charges based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last that curtailed anti-fraud statutes known as honest services laws.