Rod Blagojevich's lawyers will be making their final, crucial jury decisions before the real drama begins in the former governor's racketeering and fraud trial — one of the biggest such cases in the history of this corruption-plagued state.
Judge James B. Zagel was expected to question about 30 more jurors Monday, after quizzing 59 potential jurors in two days and booting out 20 over objections from both sides. The final panel will be whittled down to 12 jurors plus alternates Tuesday before lawyers launch into their opening statements.
Blagojevich has pleaded not guilty to scheming to profit from his power as governor to fill the Senate seat President Barack Obama left to move to the White House. He also denies plotting to pressure campaign donors illegally and launching a scheme to divide the hefty dividends with advisers after he left office.
Zagel refused to delay the opening statements even one day so Blagojevich and his wife could attend their daughter's grammar school graduation. While Patti Blagojevich looked glum, the former governor flashed his usual campaign trail charm.
"I'm getting to like this building," the 53-year-old Democrat quipped Friday as he left the courthouse.
Some of the potential jurors questioned so far included two former Marines, a Polish-born housekeeping supervisor, a hospital administrator, a retired videotape librarian, a bank manager, a woman who does community volunteer work and a federal Homeland Security supervisor at O'Hare International Airport.
One cited Blagojevich's television appearances, saying she viewed it as self-promotion. Blagojevich appeared on NBC's reality TV show "Celebrity Apprentice" and on several talk shows.
No jurors were expected to be seated until after the lawyers make their final challenges. Then come the openings from prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Making the opening statement for Blagojevich will be Sam Adam Jr., the fiery courtroom orator whose shouting, whispering, table-pounding closing argument preceded the acquittal of R&B singer R. Kelly on child pornography charges two years ago.
Prosecutors have 500 hours of secretly made FBI tapes on which Blagojevich and his brother are heard. They are also guaranteed to call as witnesses both of the former governor's chiefs of staff, Alonzo Monk and John Harris, to give jurors an inside view of the alleged schemes.
The former governor's brother, 54-year-old Robert Blagojevich of Nashville, Tenn., has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the alleged plan to sell the Senate seat and plotting to pressure a racetrack owner for campaign money using the governor's power over racetrack legislation.
It's only the latest episode in the federal government's war on the decades-old corruption that has sent dozens of state and local officials to prison. Blagojevich's predecessor in the governor's office, Republican George Ryan, is serving a 6 1/2-year racketeering and fraud sentence in federal prison.
The trial threatens to be a major embarrassment for Democrats, playing out for months before November elections. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn — Blagojevich's former lieutenant governor — is trying to hang onto the state's top office and Democratic nominee Alexi Giannoulias is campaigning for the same Senate seat that is the focus of the corruption trial.
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