Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich opted not to testify at his corruption trial today, and his defense team rested its case without calling a single witness.
Blagojevich’s lawyers said that the prosecution did not prove its case, so there was no need to respond with testimony from defense witnesses. “They’re the ones that failed to prove the case here. … The law is clear: The burden of proof is on the government,” said Sam Adam Sr., who heads Blagojevich’s legal team.
The jury did hear from Blagojevich’s brother, Robert, who had chaired his brother’s campaign fund since August 2008. Robert Blagojevich is on trial in connection with an alleged plot to sell Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat, and his defense team decided to put him on the stand. Robert's wife, Julie Blagojevich, also testified.
Sam Adam Jr., who is defending the former governor alongside his father, had told jurors in his opening argument that they would hear from Blagojevich. He said today he still wants Blagojevich to testify, but his father’s opinion prevailed in the end. “It simply came down to an argument between an old bull and a young toad, and the old bull won,” the younger Adam said to reporters at in the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago.
Rod Blagojevich has said for months that he was looking forward to taking the stand and defending himself. He said today that he still wanted to but was heeding the advice of his legal team. He told reporters, “I felt all along and believed all along that I was going to testify.”
Part of the defense’s strategy is to claim that Blagojevich was seeking the advice of lawyers during the secretly recorded phone conversations, which include speculation on what he could get in return for an appointment to Obama’s former Senate seat, the government presented as evidence. He called the conversations “brainstorming” with advisers and lawyers and said he never intended to do anything that broke the law.
“Yes, [prosecutors] proved some of the ideas were stupid, but they also proved some of the ideas were good,” Blagojevich said. He added that he did not take any money in connection with any corrupt actions. “The government, in their case, proved my innocence. They proved I did nothing illegal.”
Blagojevich proclaimed he had “learned a lot” during his corruption trial. “Perhaps maybe the biggest lesson I have learned is that I talk too much.”
The senior Adam conceded that the former governor’s verbosity was one of the reasons he hesitated to put him on the stand, saying “one of the concerns” was “that he talks too much.”
Blagojevich’s lawyers argued to have the conspiracy charges against their client tossed out on the basis that prosecutors did not prove their case. Judge James Zagel adjourned without ruling on the request. Lawyers are due back in court tomorrow morning. Closing arguments could begin as early as Monday.
When Blagojevich did take the stand (sort of)
Although Blagojevich made a surprise last-minute move today to forgo testifying in his criminal trial, he took almost the opposite action during his impeachment trial in January 2009. He maintained throughout those proceedings that he was not going to participate. In a surprise move before the last day of the trial, the public relations firm representing him announced via Twitter that then Gov. Blagojevich would come to Springfield to give a closing statement. (Blagojevich’s statement starts on page 589 and continues to page 636.)
However, he declined to make the statement under oath and continued to ignore legislators’ calls that he field questions.
Unlike during the criminal trial, Blagojevich pushed to call witnesses during his impeachment trial, saying their testimony would be key to proving his innocence. He cited not being able to call certain witnesses as one of his reasons for not answering questions.
His defense then is similar to the one being presented now: The prosecution didn’t prove its case, and he never intended to do anything illegal. From the transcript:
It is painful to be in a car and drive and see people sitting, standing at bus stops or walking down the street who voted for you, presumably, more of them did than didn't, and they've hired you and trusted you, and you're dying to tell them, I didn't do it, I didn't let you down, give me a chance to show you. It's painful, and it's lonely. But I want you to know, I want you to know I never, ever intended to commit a criminal act. I never, in any conversation, intended to violate any criminal law.
House Prosecutor David Ellis chastised Blagojevich for not participating in the full proceedings. From the transcript:
He could have put himself under oath and faced my questions and more importantly, much more importantly, faced your questions. But he didn't do that, did he? … He talked more about the evidence with Barbara Walters on The View than he did in this chamber today where he's facing impeachment and removal from office. He could have been here, and he wasn't. He could have provided the context for those recorded conversations, and he didn't. … He simply says there's no evidence and walks off the stage.
The defense tactics Blagojevich chose did not pan out for him at his impeachment trial. The Senate convicted him and removed him from office. However, that was a group of legislators, and with their positions comes inside knowledge of the system, personal experience dealing directly with the governor and political baggage. An impeachment trial is not a criminal trial. Time will tell if similar arguments from Blagojevich’s defense will persuade a jury that the state failed to prove its case.