CHICAGO -- A painter, a video-store worker who likes to watch Judge Judy and a woman worried about not being able to use her Oprah tickets were among those questioned Monday as lawyers and a federal judge pushed to put together a panel of jurors for the corruption retrial of ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
During interviews that lasted about five minutes each, U.S. District Judge James Zagel asked more than a dozen potential jurors about how much they followed Blagojevich's trial last summer.
In that trial, the impeached governor was found guilty of lying to the FBI but jurors couldn't reach a verdict on any of the other charges against him. Those included charges related to allegations that he tried to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat in exchange for a high-profile job or campaign cash.
Some of those questioned told Zagel they barely followed last year's trial. All said they could be fair if selected to be jurors.
One woman said she'd concluded Blagojevich was "off center" but that her opinion would not affect her ability to render a fair decision if she were to be selected for the jury.
"He's not on trial for being a little off center," Zagel told her, adding that she would only be asked to assess specific evidence about specific allegations.
In going over the 38-page questionnaire the jury candidates had filled out, Zagel focused on issues such as their experiences with the criminal justice system, whether they had family in law enforcement and how closely they followed the first trial last year. He was expected to question up to 40 more people out of a pool of more than 100 to assess their suitability, and had gotten through 13 by the lunch break.
One man, a painter, told the judge that he'd been arrested for drunken driving a few years ago and had been arrested years ago when he was "a kid," but that the case was dismissed. He also said that he'd sued the CTA several years ago but lost, explaining that it was because "they had better lawyers than I did."
One woman in her 30s told Zagel she had tickets for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in mid-May and wanted to be sure she could attend. Another woman, the video store employee, said that about the closest she got to legal matters was watching Judge Judy on TV.
"It's not much like that here," Zagel told her with a smile. "I don't want you to be disappointed."
A woman in her 70s, who said she makes up to 50 quilts a year, usually for charity, wrote on her questionnaire that she wasn't sure cooperating witnesses were trustworthy. Several people taking the stand for Blagojevich have been cooperating with the government.
Zagel told her that she needed to assess a witness' believability one by one at trial.
""It's not that much different than when you had to decide which (of your children) was telling the truth," Zagel said.
Yet another would-be juror worked for the Chicago Tribune, at least some of the time as a reporter and editor.
"There would be a tremendous book opportunity if you say on the jury," Zagel told the man.
"That's crossed my mind," the man laughed.
Blagojevich, who denies any wrongdoing, scribbled notes on a yellow pad as would-be jurors answered questions. His wife, Patti, also has taken detailed notes from her seat on a nearby spectators' bench.
Another issue Zagel returned to a number of times was the prospective jurors' experience or connection with Children's Memorial Hospital – an issue because Blagojevich is accused of shaking down the CEO of the hospital for thousands of dollars.
Zagel did not dismiss any jurors or make any suggestion that any of them would not sit on the jury. Nor did any of the attorneys ask any questions.
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's 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.
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 statements 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.