CHICAGO — What could be imprisoned former Illinois Gov. George Ryan's last longshot chance at a new trial is now again in the hands of an appeals court.
After years of complex legal wrangling, Ryan's attorneys argued Friday before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after an order from the U.S. Supreme Court. It's unknown how long the lower court could take to decide; attorneys estimate weeks or months.
The stakes, however, are not that high. The arguments come as the former Republican governor nears the end of his 6 1/2-year federal prison sentence on several corruption charges. He's due to be released next year.
Friday's hearing stemmed from the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling curtailing "honest services" laws, saying they must be applied to clear instances of bribery or kickbacks.
Ryan, 78, was convicted in 2006 of steering state contracts and leases to political insiders while he was secretary of state and then as governor, receiving vacations and gifts in return. He also was accused of stopping an investigation into secretary of state employees accepting bribes in exchange for truck driver's licenses.
Ryan's attorneys contend there is no evidence that Ryan took bribes – that gifts and vacations Ryan received from people who later got state business were based on friendship and not in exchange for financial benefits.
"This is a friend doing a favor for a friend," Ryan attorney Albert Alschuler told reporters after the hearing. "Yeah, he may have a leg up in government business and maybe you don't like that, but it's not bribery."
Federal prosecutors disagreed in court during the brief hearing, saying there was overwhelming evidence that Ryan took bribes. Prosecutors declined to be interviewed.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the appeals court to again look at Ryan's bid to overturn his convictions. Last year, the lower court rejected arguments that the convictions should be tossed.
The high court, which upheld Ryan's convictions, took issue with how the appeals court reached its decision to reject his appeal. The court concluded defense attorneys didn't make a timely objection to jury instructions about so-called honest services laws.
Honest services charges have been used in corruption cases against politicians and corporate executives accused of violating their duty to provide "honest services."
Defense attorneys have long scrutinized honest services laws as too vague and a last resort of prosecutors in corruption cases that lack the evidence to prove money is changing hands. The Supreme Court largely agreed in its 2010 ruling.
Experts have said chances for a new Ryan trial are slim.
Ryan's attorney, former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson said any new trial would focus solely on several fraud convictions. However, he said that even if Ryan wins a new trial, prosecutors are unlikely to want another costly, time-consuming process and could agree to have Ryan resentenced on the convictions not in dispute. That could lead to his release on time served.
He said if the appellate court rejects the bid, Ryan's lawyers plan to appeal to the high court again.
Ryan is in prison in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., and is due to be released in July 2013. Thompson said Ryan is eligible for work release early next year.
Thompson said he spoke to Ryan last week and that the former governor was "anxious" about the hearing.
"George Ryan is a strong guy," Thompson told reporters after the hearing.
He added that Ryan has physical ailments and has suffered from the loss of his wife. The former governor was released for several hours to be at his wife's side before she died last year, though he wasn't allowed to attend her funeral.
"He's doing as well as can be expected," Thompson said.
Ryan's successor as governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, is also in prison for corruption; he began serving a 14-year term in March.
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