Moments after learning his bid to reduce his 14-year sentence had failed, Rod Blagojevich stood alone in a stark prison room in Colorado on Tuesday while his family sobbed in a Chicago courtroom a thousand miles away.
Dressed in blue prison garb and with his famously jet-black hair now grayish-white, the former governor, appearing on a flickering closed-circuit television screen, shook his head and collapsed in his seat. He could hear his wife, Patti, and young daughters crying in the courtroom gallery, but he couldn’t see them because the camera was still pointed at the judge’s bench.
Finally, after the courtroom cleared of spectators, the camera was swiveled so the family could talk briefly face-to-face. A haggard-looking Blagojevich managed a smile and thanked his daughters for their impassioned pleas for mercy to U.S. District Judge James Zagel.
“I heard what you said,” he told them. “Thank you. You looked so nice.”
The moment marked a quiet conclusion to a legal saga that began when FBI agents rousted Blagojevich from bed on a December morning nearly eight years ago. The well-chronicled story has included his dramatic impeachment, a bizarre turn on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” two criminal trials, an appeal and now a sentencing do-over.
Saying Blagojevich’s corruption diminished the public’s “already taxed faith” in its elected leaders, Zagel put an emphatic point on the end of the case by imposing the same sentence he had in 2011. The judge did so even though Blagojevich apologized for his “mistakes,” claiming to be a changed man and model prisoner.
“I do not doubt that he is a loving father and that his children miss him deeply in his absence,” Zagel said in announcing his decision in a packed courtroom. “But as I said four years ago, the fault lies in the governor.”
The decision means Blagojevich, 59, will almost certainly remain in prison until May 2024. It appeared to stun the ex-governor, whose face sunk into a deep frown once it became clear from the judge’s remarks what the outcome would be. As Zagel spoke, Blagojevich’s older daughter, Amy, 20, first rolled her eyes and then furiously shook her head. Seated on the other side of their mother, his younger daughter, Annie, 13, burst into tears.
After court had adjourned, Amy cried out, “He stole my childhood!” and gestured toward Zagel’s now-empty bench. Later, in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, shook with anger as she spoke.
“Quite frankly, I’m dumbfounded and flabbergasted,” she told reporters. “This was unusually cruel and heartless and unfair. … Somehow, we will get through this. We love Rod. And we’ll be here for him as we continue to fight.”
Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 of misusing his powers as governor in an array of wrongdoing, including most notably his attempts to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama after his 2008 election as president. The conviction came less than a year after an initial trial ended with a jury deadlocked on all but one count of lying to the FBI, forcing the retrial.
Last year, an appeals court threw out five counts involving the Senate seat sale on technical grounds. But the three-judge panel tempered the small victory for Blagojevich by calling the evidence against him “overwhelming” and making it clear that Zagel’s original sentence was not out of bounds.
Legal experts had predicted that Zagel — if anything — might shave a year or two off the original sentence. But the judge was clear Tuesday that he gave little weight to arguments by Blagojevich’s legal team that the case had fundamentally changed after the appellate court’s ruling.
“In the end, Judge Zagel remained steadfast in his view of the crimes and this defendant,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor.
Blagojevich’s long-awaited day in court came nearly 4 1/2 years after he reported to the federal prison in suburban Denver. As reporters and spectators filed into Zagel’s courtroom Tuesday, the video feed popped up on large screens showing Blagojevich sitting in a chair in a room with cinder block walls.
Signal problems caused the image to flicker and blur, making it difficult at times for a clear view of Blagojevich’s face. As he waited for the hearing to begin, he fidgeted with his hands and glanced nervously from side to side.
As he had argued in court filings, Blagojevich’s lawyer, Leonard Goodman told the judge that without the five counts, the remaining charges against the ex-governor were “significantly different,” emphasizing that Blagojevich never profited from his actions.
“We believe he is ready to come home,” said Goodman, who asked Zagel to reduce Blagojevich’s sentence to just five years, essentially meaning he would go free with time served.
Both of Blagojevich’s daughters then read emotional pleas to the judge to let their father come home. Annie, now in eighth grade, said she talks every night with her father by phone, but it can’t replace him being present in her life. When he went to prison, she said, she could barely play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano. Now she’s playing Beethoven.
“I almost don’t want to grow up because I want to wait for him to come home,” Annie said.
Amy, who is in college, said it was difficult to stay connected with her dad or even to have private conversations with him during visits to prison. She said it “kills him” that he’s never even met important people in her life, from new friends to college professors.
“The longer my father is gone, the more and more estranged my sister and I become from him,” she said.
As his daughters spoke, Blagojevich appeared to choke up, putting a fist to his mouth and wincing. He smiled sadly as Annie spoke of her longing for the days when they “can be a big, happy family together again” eating popcorn while watching movies at night.
In his 15 minutes of remarks, Blagojevich apologized for his “mistakes” but never specifically mentioned the crimes for which he was convicted. He said he wished he could turn back the clock, “but I know this is not possible.”
“I recognize it was my actions and my words that led me here,” Blagojevich said in a soft voice. “This can be a beginning to make amends for the past.”
The former governor also said it pains him that his actions have hurt his family and blamed himself for putting his loved ones in that predicament. Over the last 4 1/2 years behind bars, he said, he’s become closer to God and found solace in helping fellow inmates. A history buff, he spoke specifically about President Abraham Lincoln and how his steady resolve leading the nation through the Civil War has been a source of inspiration for him.
“In times of trouble and disaster, they don’t have to be the end of things, they can also be the beginning,” Blagojevich said.
But prosecutors were not impressed, saying Blagojevich had not changed. In asking the judge to reimpose the 14 years, Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Bonamici emphasized that he has never taken responsibility for the tarnish he brought to his office or shown true remorse. She pointed to federal wiretaps that captured Blagojevich as governor over and over talking about what he stood to gain from his crimes, including one conversation in which he talked about a lucrative deal that would get him “f—— out of Illinois.”
“As long as the defendant is unable or unwilling to accept responsibility for what he actually did and what he actually meant when he did it, there can be no rehabilitation,” Bonamici said.
Zagel said that he realized the suffering of Blagojevich’s family and applauded him for being a model prisoner, but he noted that the former governor’s conduct in prison was not as big a factor as the wrongdoing he committed while in office.
The judge referred to dozens of letters from fellow inmates praising Blagojevich but said the prisoners “know him only from the inside.”
The judge also rejected the argument that the case against Blagojevich was any weaker because of the five counts thrown out on appeal. Zagel said the governor engaged in a clear pattern of corruption that benefited him personally and politically.
“He sees himself as less morally culpable, but I don’t draw such a clear moral distinction,” Zagel said. “As in many cases, political and personal gains were very much intermingled here.”
In making the case for a reduced sentence, Blagojevich’s attorneys submitted a letter from Patti on the eve of the resentencing that said her husband calls every night from prison and that the family has visited him more than 20 times during his time in custody. Also writing letters of support were Blagojevich’s sister-in-law, 33rd Ward Ald. Deborah Mell, who sat with Patti and the rest of the family during the sentencing, and former state Sen. Carol Ronen, D-Chicago.
Blagojevich’s brother, Robert, attended the sentencing hearing, traveling from his home near Nashville, Tenn., to support Rod, despite the fact the two have not spoken or seen each other for six years. Robert Blagojevich, who ran fundraising for his brother’s campaign for four months during 2008, initially faced three corruption charges alongside his brother, but prosecutors dropped the charges after the first trial ended in a hung jury.
After the hearing, Robert Blagojevich told reporters he was disappointed Zagel had decided to reimpose the 14-year term, then left the courthouse before the rest of the family came down to speak to the media.
Goodman said that Blagojevich could still ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up his case now that the resentencing is over.
The move would be a long shot at best, however, especially considering the high court already declined to hear Blagojevich’s case in March.
Goodman was still addressing reporters when Patti Blagojevich and her daughters quietly stepped away from the microphones, weaving their way through the crowd to the courthouse exit and a horde of TV camera crews on the sidewalk before climbing into a waiting sedan.
Across the street, attendees of the farmers market on the federal plaza turned to find the source of the commotion.
“Let Rod go!” one man who realized what was happening yelled out.
Read more on the Chicago Tribune website.