CHICAGO — While `harebrained' isn't a word often heard within staid federal courtrooms, the judge who recently sentenced Rod Blagojevich to 14 years in prison said it more than once Monday in lambasting a defense request that he look into potential juror misconduct.
After convening a hearing on the matter, Judge James Zagel immediately criticized the motion, which cited a recent civics lesson about the impeached Illinois governor's case that the jury forewoman gave to high school students. It said that presentation was possible grounds for tossing out the 17 convictions from Blagojevich's retrial this year.
"I intend to deny this motion, which I regard as harebrained," Zagel said.
"Harebrained?" Blagojevich's attorney Sheldon Sorosky interrupted, cocking his ear in the judge's direction.
"Yes, harebrained," Zagel responded.
The veteran judge, who presided over both of Blagojevich's trials, has sounded exasperated in the past by flurries of defense motions, but has often added that he didn't hold it against the defense attorneys for attempting legitimate legal maneuvers.
On Monday, he appeared to have lost patience.
"This motion was prepared without any adequate thought," he said at the hearing.
Zagel singled out the defense contention in the motion that jury forewoman Connie Wilson used her juror questionnaire in her talk, and said he never instructed jurors they had to keep their questionnaire confidential after the trial ended.
He also took the rare step of threatening to sanction Lauren Kaeseberg, the lawyer who signed the motion and filed it electronically late Friday. He also suggested she consider writing a letter of apology to Wilson for suggesting the jury forewoman may have acted improperly.
Wilson told The Associated Press she doesn't need an apology, saying she appreciated that Blagojevich's attorneys were pulling out the stops for their prison-bound client.
"They are just doing their jobs," said the former church choir director. "If I was on the other side, I would want my attorneys to do the most they could do, too."
Wilson said she never displayed a questionnaire from the trial itself but rather a generic, blank questionnaire. And she said she called the clerk's office at the federal court before giving her talk.
"An apology isn't something I need to have, but I did want people to know I didn't do anything wrong," Wilson said.
The admonition from Zagel came two weeks after Blagojevich's sentencing hearing, during which the judge said the former governor had torn the fabric of state government by his criminal actions, which jurors found had included trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old Senate seat.
Blagojevich is scheduled to begin serving his prison term in March for the corruption convictions of his retrial and the charge of lying to the FBI from his first trial.
After Monday's hearing, Kaeseberg and three other Blagojevich attorneys – all of whom had a hand in drafting the document – said they stood by the motion and they would have been remiss by not filing it.
"It was filed in 100 percent good faith," Kaeseberg told reporters. "I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't do it." She added that she was "disappointed" in Zagel's use of uncharacteristically blunt language.
Attorneys can't approach jurors directly, she said, and so the motion called for an evidentiary hearing to discover if Wilson may have violated orders by using the questionnaire publicly.
"(The motion) was not done in any way to hurt her, harm her or call her credibility into question," Kaeseberg said. She declined to comment on whether she would accept the judge's suggestion and write Wilson a letter of apology.