Gabby Blagojevich faces biggest test in cross-exam

AP News
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Posted: Jun 05, 2011 2:25 PM
Gabby Blagojevich faces biggest test in cross-exam

He talked his way into this mess, and he seems to think he can talk his way out.

But the biggest test of Rod Blagojevich's gift of gab and ability to explain away corruption charges may come down to how the ousted Illinois governor responds to a resumption of unrelenting cross-examination by prosecutors Monday. The cross could last more than a day.

"The next few days are it," said Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago. "The first deadlocked trial, the motions, everything that's happened in the retrial so far _ it all comes down to this."

Lead prosecutor Reid Schar launched his blistering cross-examination of Blagojevich at the end of last week, but could squeeze in only one combative hour before the judge adjourned for the weekend. Monday will be Blagojevich's sixth day on the stand.

What landed Blagojevich in court was his talk _ captured on FBI wiretaps _ that prosecutors say shows he tried to leverage his power to name someone to President Barack Obama's old Senate U.S. seat and secure campaign donations, a Cabinet post, an ambassadorship or some other top job in the process.

Some legal observers say Blagojevich's sometimes rambling, repetitive testimony is only digging him in deeper, making it more likely he will be convicted of some or all of the 20 corruption counts, including attempted extortion and fraud.

Others say he's done well, at the very least muddying the waters after prosecutors presented a strong three-week case.

"I think he has done a nice job and has helped his cause a lot," said Terry Sullivan, a former state's attorney who help prosecute serial killer John Wayne Gacy and who has sat through much of Blagojevich's testimony.

Most impressive, says Sullivan, is that Blagojevich didn't flinch from engaging Schar in the verbal brawl when the prosecutor confronted the twice-elected governor as cross-examination began.

"Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct?" Schar asked, his voice raised in anger.

After the judge overruled objections from defense attorneys, Blagojevich said calmly, "Yes."

Facing rapid-fire questions for an hour, Blagojevich seemed occasionally flustered but not cowed.

"He didn't crumble," Sullivan said.

So certain does Blagojevich seem about his rhetorical ability, he even tried several times to answer questions that his own lawyer jumped up to head off. "Objection, Rod!" his attorney yelled at him across the room.

"For some jurors, they might see that as demonstrating that he really isn't trying to hide anything," said Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago defense attorney who practices in federal court. "Even when his lawyers object, he wants to answer the question."

Blagojevich faces charges including that he tried to sell or trade the Senate seat and tried to squeeze executives for campaign cash by threatening state decisions that would hurt their businesses.

As his own attorneys tossed softball questions to him last week, Blagojevich appeared mainly at ease but also indignant at times. He answered repeated questions about whether he ever tried to shake anyone down with a firm, "Absolutely not!"

His tone in court was a contrast to the impression he makes on FBI recordings as crude, sometimes petty and often greedy. He's frequently delivered the courtroom equivalent of campaign speeches, slipping in _ before prosecutors can object _ references to his advocacy as governor for expanded health care.

"It's from Isaiah," he said in one Biblical reference, "Get the rich to help the poor."

Whatever advantage Blagojevich may have gained answering questions from his lawyers or standing up to the hour of cross-examination so far could easily be erased over the next few days when Schar starts to go through the evidence point by point.

"As Blagojevich starts doing his dance in answer to those questions, Reid is going to pull out the FBI tape transcripts and read from them," Cramer said. "You got a glimpse of Reid's tone _ and he's going to be crisp and clear. He's not backing down."

Cramer's prediction: That after a day or two of relentless cross-examination, the advantage will be clearly back with prosecutors.

"Coming off the stand," Cramer said, "Blagojevich could be shaking."