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Waiting for Blagojevich: A Short History of the Verdict Watch

4 years ago
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I have been on virtual verdict-watch the past two weeks, waiting for the jury to come back with its decision in the corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. It's now past 10 days of deliberations -- a length that surely heartens the defense team as much as it worries federal prosecutors. And clearly the controversial decision by Team Blagojevich not to put its chatty client on the witness stand hasn't hurt his chances of getting a hung jury or even an acquittal on one or more of the felony charges.

But I'm not here to speculate about what will happen in federal court in Chicago this week or next (or beyond). The people who know -- the jurors -- aren't publicly talking. And the people who are publicly talking -- everyone else -- don't know. Of all the stupid questions I have received from reporters in 13 years of analyzing trials, the worst is always: "When will the jury come back?" I wish I had a dollar for every time I have been asked that (and so earnestly, too). Into the vacuum of no news -- the essence of a verdict watch -- must go the dustbunnies of journalism. That is what makes verdict-watch reporting so hard to bear.

For journalists covering a trial, the tone and tenor of a verdict watch depends entirely upon the case. The waiting for decisions in Tallahassee, Fla., during the Bush v. Gore under-cards had an air of the sublime and the frivolous, even though the stakes were huge. I chalk that up to the abundance of cynical (yet party-lovin') politicos on the scene at the time. On the other hand, waiting on a verdict in the horrible child-murder case of Andrea Yates in Houston was tense and grim. It remains today the saddest story I have ever covered, and the quick deliberations reflected that. I am quite sure that the Blagojevich verdict watch fits more closely into the former and not the latter category. And to those who are there now, all I can say is: No, thanks, I'm not interested in ponying up for the verdict-time betting pool.

Some verdict watches I have covered have been ridiculously short. In Miami in 2007, federal jurors barely stepped out for a cup of coffee before finding Jose Padilla guilty. That was a travesty upon justice. So were the deliberations in the aforementioned Yates case. In Alexandria, Va., in 2006, on the other hand, a federal jury brilliantly handed al-Qaeda bagman Zacarias Moussaoui a stinging defeat by voting to sentence him to life without parole rather than to death. Anyone today who doesn't think Manhattan could handle the trial of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed ought to go back and look at how U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema handled that Moussaoui case. Those jurors revered and trusted her.

Whether I am covering a verdict watch from the site of the trial or not, I long ago decided that I would first get my work done before slacking off. So for many of the big trials of the past decade and a half, I have written two post-verdict pieces. One for a conviction; one for an acquittal. In the first trial I ever covered as a working journalist, the Oklahoma City bombing trial of Timothy McVeigh, I actually wrote three full columns covering every conceivable result. The hardest thing I have ever had to write -- it made me sick to my stomach -- was the McVeigh "acquittal" piece, because by the time the case was winding down it was clear he was guilty of murdering 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah federal building on April 19, 1995. I still have that piece somewhere. It will never see the light of day.

Like a dog in the front window, during verdict waits I also regret watching the parade of other legal stories go by. This week, for example, jury selection began for the Obama administration's first-ever military tribunal down at the detainee prison at Guantanamo Bay. This is a huge -- and so far hugely under-reported development -- and I probably should have already written about the fate of Omar Khadr while waiting for Blagojevich's jurors to make up their mind. The same is true of an important development in the death penalty debate in Ohio. On Wednesday, lawyers for a man named Kevin Keith will seek clemency based upon new evidence of his actual innocence. Verdict or no verdict, I will be writing about this story this coming weekend. Keith is scheduled to die on Sept. 15.

So we all sit here, at the courthouse or elsewhere, waiting for the clerk of the court to announce that a verdict has been reached and will be read an hour or two later. When this occurs, there is no alarm, as at a firehouse. There are no bells or sirens, as during the Battle of Britain. No one typically runs into the makeshift press room at the courthouse screaming that a verdict is in -- although the chaos that attended the Michael Jackson molestation and conspiracy verdict in June 2005 really was quite a sight to see. Instead, we wait on an e-mail, or a text message, or some quiet and solemn pronouncement that will mark a new chapter in this defendant's life. We wait, but it's his life -- and the jury's hard work.

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fworfe

If--and that's a big if---this jury gives Blagojevich a pass, it will almost certainly be the worst thing they could do for him. The Blagojevich flamboyance and mystique will evaporate, and like O.J. Simpson, he'll be despised for having "walked". A hung jury will serve no one. Blagojevich is almost certainly already broke, and either way, he's a broken man. Maybe deservedly so. But maybe he needs psychiatric help as well, and let's hope he's getting it.

August 11 2010 at 3:02 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

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