In 1969, my parents let me skip classes at New Trier High School – actually, twice
my father drove my best friend and I to the Dirksen Federal Building, dropping
us at 6 a.m. to stand in line for the biggest trial of its day- The Chicago 7
Now, 41 years later, for the last six weeks, I am back at the Federal Building where I stand in line each morning, securing my ticket for what has proven to be the hottest ticket in town. In an ironic twist of fate, here in Judge James Zagel’s majestic courtroom and seated just a few feet from me each day is Verna Sadock, the courtroom sketch artist who worked at the Chicago 7 trial when I was just 17.
I have covered the Blagojevich trial on Twitter (Msjournalist) and on this blog that I began in December 2008, following the Governor’s arrest. As I state in my blog here is why I began this endeavor:
After a long and fascinating race for the White House followed by the devastating spiral of the financial world, many of us journalists were coping with the ordinariness of the state of the news when voila! Our Illinois Governor provided us with a scandal so outrageous we had to pinch ourselves.
I have clocked, by my estimate over 300 hours in the Dirksen Federal Building since jury selection began on June 3. My motto since that day has been “4 a.m. is the new 7 a.m.” and I have interacted more with my fellow reporters and those who have become regulars in the courtroom this summer than with my own family and friends.
I have had breakfast and lunch every day just a few feet away from the prosecutors, the defense team and Rod and Patti Blagojevich. (One day as I stood in line bemoaning a broken ice machine - I looked up to see a hand grab my cup and say "I'll get you ice" ( Who was it? Rod Blagojevich!)
I have come to appreciate Judge Zagel who can always be counted on to insert some humor, literary comment or law school 101 in what otherwise might be a rather dry day.
My seat, for the most part, has been directly behind Patti Blagojevich who has often been joined by her brother Richard Mell or sister Deb Mell. Just a few feet behind her I had a direct view of the ex-Governor and his Defense team. I have about memorized the faces and habits of the jurors (the gum chewer, the nail biter and the laid back ex-Hippie just to name a few).
I have come to expect at a certain hour after lunch, Sam Adam Sr. will quietly open his briefcase, carefully unwrap a candy and pop it in his mouth. I know that every day Patti will unfold her black cashmere wrap, throw it around her shoulders and mumble about the temperature in the courtroom.
I know too that during the breaks our former Governor will bounce around the courtroom or perhaps in the lobby, signing autographs, hugging supporters and boldly declaring his innocence. In the courthouse cafeteria the Governor schmoozes with supporters even as he buses his tray.
Mostly he has a big smile on his face – asking those he meets” Where ya from?” He often jokes with the spectators during the breaks “If I knew you, maybe I would have named you to the Senate seat.” And always, when a break comes after the profanity-lace tapes have just been played- he will go up to the most straight-laced spectators and say, “I want to apologize for the language. I will make it up to you. Really I will.”
His wife Patti has surely stood by her man. Other than a couple of days, or just half days that she missed court (one day telling me as she walked in about 11 a.m. that she had to deal with an out of control teenager) Patti has been there by Rod’s side. I can’t say silently. She often looks like she would love to add to the testimony and sometimes, indeed she does. Early on, during jury selection, a potential juror rambled on about reality TV and how those who participate are just egomaniacs. With that Patti turned to me and said “Or trying to pay the bills.” And during some very unflattering testimony she sometimes shifts in her seat, turns to look at the spectators, rolls her eyes and then just controls herself. During the testimony of Children’s Memorial Hospital’s CEO Patrick Magoon, the Defense asked him how much he earned a year. But there was an objection, which Judge Zagel sustained and with that Patti turned to me and whispered, “$900,000 a year. That’s what he makes.” Of course, within moments, that comment was out there in Twitterland.
My seat has been ringside mostly every day of this trial (Or as Rod Blagojevich said one day to those of us seated right behind Patti “Wow you got box seats”) and that too has been insightful. She has been friendly and charming and explained to me in detail what it was like to eat a tarantula (you just don’t know what you would do if you have to, she said). We have discussed her mother’s battle with breast cancer as well as mine, the trials and tribulations of raising daughters (she has two – I have three) and she has politely introduced me to her brother Richard and sister Deb. As I have diligently been providing trial updates via Twitter, her brother turned to me one day and thanked me, saying he enjoys my tweets and that ‘s how he knows what is going on when he is not there. Naturally, I tweeted her brother’s comment and within 30 seconds, Patti’s sister Deb Mell sent a message to me via Twitter -that she was in Washington DC and was following me and saying she thinks this is great- she is out of town but can follow the trial though my Twitter updates. Ah, what technology has done – if Perry Mason could see us now?
And I made the choice not to Twitter when her daughter Amy yesterday fell apart crying in her mother's arms when court adjourned for lunch. Or when Patti fell weeping in her sister-in-law's arms as court adjourned yesterday.
But as for the serious matters at hand- I have to say it astounds me that the former Governor is so upbeat – working the crowd as though he were still campaigning. Cracking jokes here in federal court- after all, this is serious stuff.
The only inkling I have had that the former Governor has even thought he could lose this case came on the day of his brother Robert’s testimony. During a break, he came up to Robert’s son Alex and said, “If things go south, what size suit do you wear?”
I can’t help thinking that when this jury, who by the way has been amazingly attentive, deliberates they will have much to consider a lot of complicated and compelling evidence – a lot of talk of quid pro quo.
The only count that I see is clear-cut is lying to the FBI. Several witnesses both in person and on tape said that Rod Blagojevich was very involved in fund-raising when in fact he told the FBI there was a firewall between politics and fund-raising. The others are not as clear, but if the jury instructions are clear, it may be very easy for the jury to decide to convict on the other counts as well.
And while the details involving Children’s Memorial Hospital, the Chicago Tribune and the Road Builders are more complicated, here is what is not complicated at all.
That the Governor is heard on many many tapes using the “F” word. And it’s not just that its used – it’s that its used so often and so offensively (and there is something about hearing this rather than reading this) “I gave your grandmother a free F***** ride on a bus…I gave your F***** baby a chance to have health-care” And then talking about his poll numbers “So F*** all of you.”
I have to think that when the jury sits down – here is what they will also see. Testimony by Lon Monk, Joseph Cari, Doug Scofield, John Harris, John Wyma, Bob Greenlee, Bradley Tusk, John Johnston, Ali Ata, Joe Armanda - all corroborate each other. And then when you add in Tony Rezko , and Chris Kelly - these two guys – one is convicted and awaiting prison – the other committed suicide (although the jury is not allowed to know that – and don’t they just wonder where Kelly is?) - These guys were figures in decision making in Illinois – and they weren’t even elected– along with the powerful Stuart Levine- also convicted and awaiting prison.
It just strikes me that this jury can’t think there is too much that can be honest or good about a man who surrounded himself with these guys. These are the guys in the meetings with the Governor. These are the guys heard on the tapes.
Somehow the defense that Blagojevich is just “silly”, and “not the sharpest knife in the drawer” just may not cut it to a jury that has seen so many witnesses who made a plea deal with the government, whose careers are in shambles now – articulate bright witnesses like John Harris, Joe Cari and Doug Scofield) and even Lon Monk (not the smartest witness on the stand but he was Blagojevich’s oldest dearest friend- former college roommate) How does all this sit with the jury in the end? Maybe if the Governor had taken the stand he could have explained it. But now, this is what the jury is left with.