The jury’s message that it is deadlocked on a number of charges in the corruption trial of Rod Blagojevich raised as many questions as answers Thursday, but some legal experts agreed it was better news for the disgraced former governor than for prosecutors.
In a note read in court by Judge James Zagel, jurors said they had only managed to agree on two of 24 counts against Blagojevich, and had not even begun discussing 11 of the counts.
On the 12th day of deliberations, Zagel instructed the jury to go back and continue their work, but the panel’s disclosure sparked speculation that some jurors had doubts about the prosecution’s case.
“It’s a victory for the defense for several reasons,” said Douglas Godfrey, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, arguing that the way the government had presented its case was extremely complex. “If the jury hangs on 22, it’s a big blow to government.”
Michael Helfand, a Chicago defense attorney not involved in the case, agreed there was potentially positive news in the note for Blagojevich.
“The defense has every reason to be thrilled,” Helfand said. “This jury has been deliberating for such a long time, the chances of someone changing their mind now aren’t good.”
But Daniel Coyne, another Kent professor, said it may not be such good news for the defense, since no one knows what the two counts are that have been decided, or how the jury decided on them.
“That’s a little premature,” he said. “It means some more sleepless nights (for the defense). Trying to forecast what a jury is doing is really very treacherous work.”
The 11 counts the jury has yet to discuss involve wire fraud. Most of them deal with FBI wiretap recordings and the allegation that Blagojevich tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat.
The jurors did not say which two of the 24 counts they had agreed on, nor what their decision was.
As Zagel read the jury note to a packed courtroom, Blagojevich and his brother listened intently, sitting at the edge of their chairs. After the hearing adjourned, Blagojevich smiled in a huddle with attorneys. He put his arm around wife Patti’s shoulder.
Blagojevich did not comment after the hearing, but at least one of his attorneys, Aaron Goldstein, suggested that the latest word from jurors could be good news for his client.
“I think there’s a lot of cautious optimism,” he said.
For their part, prosecutors appeared worried — standing together in court after the hearing to discuss the implications of the note. They did not comment as they left the courtroom.
A number of analysts believe the jury may need some time to work through the remaining counts.
“If they haven’t addressed the wire fraud counts, we’re going to be here until next week,” Kent professor Richard Kling told WLS-TV.
Joel Levin, a former federal prosecutor, said it could be that one or two jurors are “really digging their heels in” on other counts, and the jury has just not gotten to the wire fraud counts.
He said what is particularly baffling is that there were few notes to the judge throughout deliberations. Until the 11th day, they had sent only two.
“Given they’ve accomplished virtually nothing, you would have thought we’d heard something,” he said.
Which counts they’ve agreed or disagreed on is crucial, especially when it comes to arguably the most serious charge, racketeering.
As they consider the racketeering charge, the indictment requires jurors to decide whether Blagojevich committed more than 20 separate illegal actions, from trying to sell the Senate seat to squeezing a construction executive for campaign cash.
Many other charges, including wire fraud, rely on whether jurors have already agreed Blagojevich committed the long list of actions under racketeering. That makes the racketeering count a kind of legal domino. If jurors convict on it, many other counts should also come in as guilty.
Asked if Thursday’s note suggests jurors are bogged down on racketeering, Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky agreed.
“Yes, it does seem to,” he said.
Blagojevich did not comment after the hearing. But when defense attorney Sam Adam Sr. was asked if he felt Thurday’s revelations were good news for his client, Adam responded, “I don’t know. I’ve learned a long time ago not to guess what juries are thinking.”
The jury sent a note to Zagel on Wednesday saying they were stuck, but without giving specifics. He asked for clarification.
Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to charges including that he tried to sell or trade the Senate seat appointment for a Cabinet post, private job or campaign cash, and tried to leverage the power of his office for personal gain.
If convicted, he could face up to $6 million in fines and a sentence of 415 years in prison, though he is sure to get much less time under federal guidelines.
His brother Robert Blagojevich, a Tennessee businessman, faces four counts and has pleaded not guilty.
Judges have a lot of autonomy in the event of a deadlock on some or all counts, Helfand said.
Besides sending jurors back to keep trying, a judge can ask them if there’s anything he could provide that might help them reach a verdict — transcripts of specific witness testimony, for instance.
Zagel praised the Blagojevich jurors Wednesday, calling them disciplined and diligent. Any discord has apparently been civil, Zagel told the court, with no reports of shouting or screaming from the room where they gather each weekday.
“Even though we feel like they’ve been deliberating a long time, given the number of counts, they really could keep at it longer,” said Nancy Marder, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. “Jurors don’t have a sense of how long is long.”
A court clerk said jurors were scheduled to take Friday off and resume deliberations on Monday.
Associated Press writers Karen Hawkins and Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.