CHICAGO — Attorneys on both sides of ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's corruption retrial tried to keep it simple Monday as they laid out their cases for the first time to the newly seated jury.
The prosecutor used visual aids to help strip down the complicated corruption charges and explain the legal definitions of words like extortion and bribery, while the defense attorney told jurors all the evidence would amount to nothing but talk.
A separate jury eight months ago had found Blagojevich guilty of lying to the FBI but could not reach a verdict on 23 others – leading some observers to say prosecutors made things too difficult for jurors to follow. It was clear from the moment Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Niewoehner began that would not be the case this time.
With images projected on a screen behind him, Niewoehner tried to show what the then-governor promised he would do and what he wanted in return. It showed a picture of Blagojevich and the logo for the Department of Health and Human Services as Niewoehner said Blagojevich was plotting to turn his power to appoint a successor to President Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat into a cabinet post for himself.
"Right there, the crime is complete," Niewoehner said.
Opening statements began just after the swearing-in of 12 jurors and six alternates, The panel includes a teacher, a librarian, a retired director of music at a Catholic church, a video store employee who like to watch Judge Judy on television and a woman whose husband once did volunteer work for one of Blagojevich's campaigns.
Prosecutors will call as their first witness an FBI agent who will lay the groundwork for the prosecution by explaining how the FBI carried out its secret telephone surveillance of Blagojevich. Next up will be Blagojevich's former chief of staff, John Harris, who testified in the last trial about Blagojevich's alleged attempt to trade the Senate appointment.
Blagojevich, 54, faces 20 charges this time – from attempted extortion of a children's hospital executive to conspiracy to commit bribery in a bid to sell or trade the Senate appointment for campaign cash or a well-paying job. He denies any wrongdoing.
The former governor's defense attorney Aaron Goldstein kept coming back to his own refrain as he laid out his case: "What ended up happening?," he asked after saying Blagojevich never made a dime off of any of the alleged schemes. "Nothing."
"Rod gets nothing," he said, throughout his opening statement.
As the prosecutor did, Goldstein kept his point simple. As he showed a photograph of a smiling Blagojevich as a child with his parents and his brother, Goldstein tried to make Blagojevich more accessible, a guy who is more like them than the politician they may have read about in the papers.
"You will see the lengths to which they (the government) will go to and you will still be left with nothing," Goldstein said. Returning to his contention that Blagojevich was nothing more than a talker, he added, "You will find yourself wanting more, and time after time you will get nothing."
Almost as striking as what Goldstein said was what he didn't: That Blagojevich would testify. Unlike defense attorneys at the beginning of the last trial, Goldstein did not promise that Blagojevich would take the stand and explain what happened.
Prosecutors, too, changed tactics a bit. Unlike their dry and businesslike presentation last time, Niewoehner appealed to jurors' emotions – particularly when talking about Blagojevich's alleged attempt to shake down a children's hospital executive for campaign contributions.
"He and he alone was going to decide whether a sick child got health care," the prosecutor said.
If convicted on all counts, Blagojevich would face a maximum prison term of 350 years – though guidelines would dictate he get far less. He already faces five years for his conviction at the first trial on a charge of lying to the FBI.