After promising for a year and a half to take the witness stand, Rod Blagojevich is likely to testify in his own defense at his federal corruption trial this week in a long-awaited duel of wits and wills with federal prosecutors.
Unlike in his TV interviews, Blagojevich is going to be under oath. And the grilling he gets from government attorneys about charges that he sought to sell or trade President Barack Obama's former Senate seat is guaranteed to be tougher than anything he faced on the talk show circuit.
"Barbara Walters is not going to be cross-examining him in that courtroom," says former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey H. Cramer, managing director and head of the Chicago office of Kroll Associates, an investigative firm.
Taking the stand in his own defense, possibly as early as Tuesday, is a high-risk move that many lawyers warn could backfire. They say that to have any chance of winning over jurors, Blagojevich must abandon his cocky demeanor and become the soul of humility, admitting faults and apologizing but insisting he never intended to violate the law.
"He has to convince people that he knows he's a jerk and sometimes didn't work as hard as he should have and had a bad mouth and spent too much money on clothes and insulted the people of the state," says Professor Leonard Cavise of DePaul University law school.
"He has to not fight like the barracuda that we know he is," Cavise adds.
Federal spokesman Randall Samborn won't say who Blagojevich's adversary in the cross-examination duel will be. But it's hard to imagine U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald assigning that role to anyone but the trial's tough, methodical lead prosecutor, Reid Schar.
In presenting their case, prosecutors have played numerous wiretap tapes made secretly by FBI agents in the weeks before Blagojevich was arrested in December 2008. Jurors have heard him agonizing over whether to fill the Senate seat that Obama was leaving to move to the White House with the new president's friend, Valerie Jarrett, to appoint U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., or possibly even name himself to the job. He has been heard saying that he sent a message to Obama and Jarrett that the seat could be hers if the incoming president would give him a Cabinet post or ambassadorship.
And jurors have heard Blagojevich conferring with aides about efforts to squeeze hefty campaign contributions out of a racetrack owner, a roadbuilder and a hospital executive.
Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to scheming to get a Cabinet post, another big job or a massive campaign contribution for the Senate seat. He also has pleaded not guilty to plotting to launch a racketeering operation in the governor's office.
His brother Robert Blagojevich, 54, a Nashville, Tenn., businessman, has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the alleged plan to sell or trade the Senate seat and plotting to pressure businessmen illegally for campaign funds.
Robert Blagojevich and his wife, Julie, are expected to be the leadoff defense witnesses. But the former governor may well be the next to testify once they have finished.
Defendants only rarely testify in their own defense at federal trials. Lawyers say there is too much risk a naive client's testimony will play into the hands of a crafty prosecutor. But Blagojevich is a former Cook County prosecutor himself, as well as a former congressman and governor. Verbal combat is nothing new to him.
Sitting it out and letting his lawyers do his talking for him was no help to Blagojevich's predecessor in the Illinois governor's chair, George H. Ryan. He is currently serving a 6 1/2-year racketeering and fraud sentence in federal prison.
Eating humble pie may prove tough for Blagojevich, who is known to have a temper. And it may be difficult for him to erase the impression jurors have received from the tapes so far, on which he has been highly profane, reserving choice epithets for Obama and Senate leaders.
Prosecutors aren't going to make it any easier for him.
"He's the star," says Roosevelt University political scientist Paul Green who has been on hand for much of the trial. "You know they're going to be gunning for him."
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