You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Blago Trial: The Defense’s Hail Mary Pass

I have just witnessed maybe the least convincing and most melodramatic closing argument of all time.

Click here to read Margo Howard’s assessment of the opening statements in the Blagojevich trial and here to read about the craziness that occurred during the first round of closing statements. Click here for her first, second, third, and fourth dispatches from the actual trial.

Oh, thank goodness Sam Adam, Jr. has returned to deliver the defense’s closing, even after Judge Zagel impugned his legal masculinity at the end of the last session. Putting aside for the moment that he can make your head hurt from his hollering, the younger lawyer of the Adam family is the closest thing to entertainment in this courtroom. He reminds me of Narcissus looking into the pool, only Sam Adam is in love with his voice, raising it and lowering it dramatically so that one is torn between alternately covering both ears or looking for an ear trumpet to hear what he is whispering.

There is a slight delay before he can begin because the Blago party is late in arriving. Today it consists of Blago and Patti; their elder daughter, Amy (the one who was not climbing on her mother yesterday); Patti’s sister, Debbie, who doesn’t much look like her; and their brother, Richard, who looks like Wayne Newton when he was young and thin. Blago, as is his custom, is greeting people along the way and schmoozing. There is nothing serious about him. It is almost as though he refuses to acknowledge where he is or the reason he is there. I imagine I would find it humiliating to be in his position, but a possible explanation for his garrulous behavior is the old saying, “Never let ’em see you sweat.” 

The proceedings start with more wrangling about “the missing witness” issue from yesterday; there is to be no mention of Obama, Rahm, and Rezko. The defense’s solution to this problem becomes clear when Jr. starts talking, and he speaks only of their missing witness. “There is a big pink elephant in this room,” he bellows. “You know it, and I know it, and you know I know it, and I know you know it. When I promised you at the beginning of this trial that you would hear from Rod, I had no idea the government wouldn’t make their case. No idea!” (He did not even build up to a high decibel level; he started there.) “I told you you would learn that Rod did nothing wrong, but I had no idea it would be from them!” It takes real chutzpah to try this maneuver, because he is referring to the tapes, which I assure you did nothing for Blago or any claim he may have had to being honest.

Then he moves on to try to discredit the testimony of Bob Greenlee, the deputy governor who became a cooperating witness. “Greenlee,” he explains (apropos of nothing) “is what you’d get if Tom Arnold and Buddy Holly had a baby. Bob Greenlee tells you ridiculousness, because you and I know BS when we hear it.”

His tone is angry and he is screeching. Then he really sticks the shiv in by reminding the jurors that Greenlee went to Yale and then the University of Chicago. “You know that we’re watching you [the jurors] and you’re watching us, and you know what you heard, you know what you saw, you know what you felt.” Now he brings it down to a whisper. “That was a beautiful presentation by Niewoehner [the prosecuting attorney], but it was a complete and utter hiding of the facts. I only hope the jury figures it out.” Then he plays a tape. (They are not using PowerPoint the way the prosecution did. They only projected one thing onto the screen, and that was Patti’s contract with Rezko that you could neither see clearly nor read.) I cannot tell you what was on the tape they play because the sound quality makes it sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Nor can I figure out if they are trying to come across as the poor relative here and thereby drum up sympathy, or if they just neglected to get a good tape player.

His way of finessing the “pay to play” issue with Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s people is to say: “Everybody knows Jesse has a big mouth, so they let him think he was the choice. That man [Rod] wasn’t sitting on a Senate seat, he was trying to get health care and help for veterans by leveraging Jackson. And they say it’s a crime! All that talk about a 501c4 and the cabinet post with HHS was just talk.” His point, I think, was that it was not a criminal act for Blago to have delusions of grandeur or unrealistic expectations. I think.

Jr. returns to his man of the people shtick. “We are regular folks. We are at the grown-ups’ table. You know like at Thanksgiving there’s a children’s table? We’re at the grown-ups’ table.” I suspect this man is somehow confusing volume with persuasiveness. He is hollering again, and hitting the colloquialisms hard. “Give. Me. A. Break! Bribing? Extorting? This was a negotiation!” There were a few snickers from the press benches, but muted, to be sure, because the Marshals and court security people only have so many chances to assert their authority, and there is to be no laughing in the courtroom.

“He was just talkin’. That’s how he is. Like if Joan and Melissa Rivers were in a room, just talking.” That reference was certainly a square peg in a round hole, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and just assume he lost his place in his notes and what popped out was just a time filler. His next line was even better. “Thank God they taped him.” Now we were getting into alternate universe territory. Had there been no tapes there would be no case.

Then he told a joke—with Italian dialect. The one that goes, “Dat’s a one. Dat’s a two …” and that ends up with a mule being shot dead. After the joke, and the objection, the judge sustained the government’s objection and added his own remark: “This is beginning to look like a show.”

Another stunt of Jr.’s is to play Mickey the Dunce and paint Blago as “an insecure, not all that bright guy who just wants to do what’s best for the people of Illinois.” And he blamed Blago’s “horrible judgment on people” for the witnesses who turned and the trouble he was in. At that point, the judge ordered it stricken from the record. I have no idea what the jury made of the fact that Jr. had been cut off at the pass almost every time the government objected. The most common objection was:” That was not the evidence.” His dual refrains became, “Give. Me. A. Break!” And “Come on!” He called the government’s case “a total distortion,” and when he implied the FBI was in the tank to “bring down Blagojevich,” Reid Schar, the prosecuting attorney, rose for yet another objection. Schar didn't even have to say anything. He just held his head.

But, against all odds, Jr. continued. “Follow the money!” he shouted. “But follow it all the way through. The IRS agent testified twice—for hours—to prove that Rod used his Am-Ex card for clothes. $400,000 worth of clothes. Well, he paid for them himself. The IRS didn’t tell you that he paid half a million dollars in taxes. Do you know why he spent $400,000 for suits? Because he was the CEO of the state of Illinois. He’s a politician! You gotta look the part. We are adults. I mean, look at what Sarah Palin spent on clothes.” The prosecution merely stands, and Zagel, inferentially sustaining the objection, interjects: “Why don’t you try a different tack?” Jr.’s different tack is to say, “If he were corrupt, you’d have a guy go to your tailor with cash!” Anything from the tapes that sounded incriminating was the fault of his advisers’ opinions. Now Zagel was stopping Jr. constantly. After one remark, he said, “Counsel, I do not recall testimony like that.” Then, “It’s really best if you talk about the evidence, not the prosecutors.” The best Jr. could do to recoup was to say, “Come on! This is supposed to be a federal case. Come on!”

Referring to Lon Monk, the first chief of staff out of two to turn state’s evidence, Jr. said, “Monk was makin’ it up. He took cash. He lied to the FBI.” Zagel followed with, “That is an inappropriate argument and an inappropriate subject.” For the closing of his closing, Jr. took on the mantle of God’s only son and said, “When you deliberate, ask yourself: ‘What would Sam say?’” Really?!

Now comes the actual ending of the trial, save for jury instructions. Closing the festivities for the government is Reid Schar. He is no Clarence Darrow, but he is rational and factual, does not holler, and makes a strong argument the jury can follow. I also think he makes short work of Jr.’s Hail Mary pass. He offers his opinion that the argument they have just heard is “desperate and ridiculous.”

“This puzzle shows a corrupt government. Adam has taken only a piece of the puzzle and a piece of the tapes. Blagojevich is not stupid—he knows when and with whom he is communicating. He knows how to get messages across without spelling it out. He doesn’t need to say directly he wants HHS for Jarrett’s appointment; he doesn’t need to say he wants a 501c4 for Jarrett. He understands indirect communication, because it is too blatant the other way.”

Disputing Jr.’s argument that it was “only talk” surrounding Blago’s effort to sell Obama’s Senate seat, Schar used the analogy of scouting banks to rob. “If people planned it, that was a conspiracy. It doesn’t matter what they got.” He then went on: “If there was an officer standing near a guy with a gun getting ready to shoot someone and the officer shoots the guy with the gun, that in no way lets the potential shooter off the hook.”

Schar argued that  Blago’s harboring unrealistic wishes was meaningless. “He is not the accidentally corrupt governor. His background was as a prosecutor with a background in criminal law. Is it a surprise that his people agreed with whatever he said? They were working for him; he wasn’t working for them. It was no one’s job to stop him. There is no ‘politician’s defense’ in the law. Fundraising is money.” As for Robert Blagojevich, whom the government is also chasing, Schar says, “It doesn’t matter how late in the game you come in.”

Continuing to answer Jr.’s specious points, he said, “How paying one’s taxes is exculpatory I don’t know. This is not a tax fraud case.” He further shot down Jr.’s preposterous idea that “everyone’s lying to frame Blago, and they—somehow—get Blago to frame himself on the tapes!” For good measure, he mentions motive. “How about having no money?” Then he twists the knife by pointing out it is nuts to say that Blago was taken down by the FBI to stop him politically. “If they were framing an innocent man, they wouldn’t tape him!” The government rested. Oh, by the way, every press person I talked to who’s sat through the whole trial said Blago will be found guilty on all or most counts.

Margo Howard is a syndicated advice columnist for Creators Syndicate and Last year, she covered the Clark Rockefeller trial for The New Republic.