CHICAGO (AP) — As Rod Blagojevich steps before a sentencing judge, the impeached Illinois governor might do well to suppress the cocksure, perpetual campaigner in him and conjure up a lesser-known figure: The humble, contrite family man.
Whether he can pull that off at the hearing beginning Tuesday may play a role in determining the sentence imposed for his 18 convictions, including that Blagojevich sought to auction off the Senate seat Barack Obama was vacating to become president.
The former governor has never wavered in insisting on his innocence, from his celebrity turns on national television to his gabby days on the witness stand. But even a hint of obstinacy in court could anger Judge James Zagel and scuttle any hopes Blagojevich harbors of a lesser sentence, according to legal experts and a former politician who faced the same dilemma.
“You just can’t walk into your sentencing and say you’ve been railroaded. Forget about it. That time’s over,” said former Chicago city clerk Jim Laski, who was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption in 2006. “You darn well better walk in with a heavy heart, saying you made mistakes and that you accept the decision of a jury of your peers.”
Most experts say Zagel is likely to sentence Blagojevich to around 10 years in prison. Much less would be seen as lenient. More than 10 would make the sentence one of the stiffest for corruption in Illinois’ long history of crooked politics.
Blagojevich, 54, will likely go to a low-security prison. But his life will be strictly regimented and the father of two girls will be largely cut off from the outside world. He’ll also have to work a menial job possibly janitorial work at a wage of just 12 cents an hour.
In requesting Blagojevich get between 15 and 20 years, prosecutors noted that he has shown no remorse and has even “belittled the seriousness of his offences.”
Blagojevich’s lawyers countered that federal guidelines dictate Blagojevich get about 3 1/2 years to a little more than 4 years in prison, and argued for even less.
Defense lawyers say the twice-elected Democratic governor will address Zagel directly in court, but haven’t indicated just what he’ll say or who else could speak on his behalf in a hearing that the judge says will last into Wednesday.
There has been no hint the defense intends to strike a conciliatory tone. In challenging prosecutors’ proposed sentence, Blagojevich attorney Carolyn Gurland said it is “disconnected to the facts of this case . . . in which the initiative and action at issue were all perfectly legal.”
An earlier filing also suggests Blagojevich may not accept any guilt. His attorneys asked to play unreleased FBI wiretap recordings at the sentencing that they claim show Blagojevich never had ill intent. Zagel rejected the request, which harkened to Blagojevich’s mantra since his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest that if authorities only played all the recordings, they would clear him of wrongdoing.
Gal Pissetzky, a federal defense attorney with no connection to the case, said he believes any show of defiance would be a mistake. “If you continue to shove it in the judge’s face by (insisting on) your innocence at sentencing, it takes away from your goal of less time in prison,” he said.
Judges have enormous discretion in sentencing, and their decisions can come down to notions of what constitutes justice and deterrence.
One bad omen for Blagojevich is that a different judge recently sentenced his former fundraiser, Tony Rezko, to 10 1/2 years for corruption. Observers say that increases the odds Blagojevich’s sentence will be longer.
“Prosecutors are going to say, `Hey, Blagojevich was the grandmaster of all this so he should certainly get even more time than Rezko,”’ said Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago.
Judges like to hear felons convey some remorse, but don’t necessarily expect a flat-out apology, said Turner.
“An apology has to come across as sincere,” he said. “If you are clearly doing it just to keep the sentence down, it may have a boomerang effect. The judge might say, `You lied to me before and I can tell you are lying now.”’
Blagojevich’s decision to testify and profess his innocence at his retrial could also now count against him. In light of a jury’s guilty verdict, federal judges can and often do view the testimony as perjury and use it to justify a stiffer term. If Zagel agrees, that could add two or more years to Blagojevich’s sentence, Turner added.
Another calculation is the degree of damage caused. The judge could conclude Blagojevich’s actions, especially in trying to exchange his power to appoint Obama’s replacement for campaign cash or a top job, struck at the foundation of democracy.
Zagel, on the other hand, could note that Blagojevich never succeeded in pocketing money unlike Rezko, who got more than $9 million, in part by squeezing cash from businessmen desperate to land state contracts. But Rezko was not an elected official, and that Blagojevich violated the public trust is seen as a major aggravating factor.
Some of those close to Blagojevich said they have no idea what demeanor he will assume before the judge.
“It’s very hard for me to predict what my brother’s going to say,” said Robert Blagojevich, who was a co-defendant during the first trial before prosecutors dropped charges against him. “He’s facing a very crucial juncture in his life, and I trust that he’ll use and exercise the best judgment he has when he speaks for himself.”
Robert Blagojevich, who lives in Tennessee, said he would not attend the sentencing.
Laski said he was a wreck on his own sentencing day.
“There’s anxiety, fear panic attacks. My hands were clammy. I had tears in my eyes,” he said. “No matter how you cut it, Blagojevich will be going away for a long time. He should be spending a lot of time praying right now.”
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report.
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