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Ousted Illinois governor's next fight is in court

Now that he's been ousted from the governor's office, Rod Blagojevich is pinning his hopes of staying out of prison on a father-and-son duo of defense attorneys, one of whom grabbed the limelight at R&B superstar R. Kelly's sex tape trial.
Blagojevich Legal
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich talks to the media at his home in Chicago last month.Paul Beaty / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Now that he's been ousted from the governor's office, Rod Blagojevich is pinning his hopes of staying out of prison on a father-and-son duo of defense attorneys, one of whom grabbed the limelight at R&B superstar R. Kelly's sex tape trial.

"These are two of the most flamboyant attorneys in town," DePaul University law professor Leonard Cavise says of the team of Sam Adam and his son, Samuel E. Adam.

Cavise predicts fireworks if Blagojevich goes to trial on federal corruption charges, including allegations that he tried to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

Federal prosecutors are expected to obtain an indictment by April. Blagojevich was arrested by FBI agents in December and was booted from office Thursday when a state Senate impeachment trial ended with a 59-0 vote against him.

Legal strategy being questioned
Some are already questioning the Adams' legal strategy — including their decision to let Blagojevich go on a whirlwind New York media tour before his impeachment trial ended, fielding questions about the criminal case from Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Larry King and more.

Blagojevich also gave an impassioned closing argument to senators before they removed him from office, although he didn't testify under oath.

His unwillingness to stay quiet cost him the help of his former lead attorney, Edward M. Genson, who announced he was withdrawing from the case before the media blitz.

Lawyers say Blagojevich tipped his hand about a possible defense when he said in his Senate plea that he had no intent to commit any crime.

"There will be an instruction — the jury will be told that for them to find him guilty he has to have intended to commit fraud," says defense attorney John M. Beal.

The ousted governor also gave a peek at another defense strategy during his media interviews, saying secretly recorded conversations that were cited in the criminal complaint — including one of him calling the Senate seat a valuable thing not to be given away for free — were taken out of context.

"Blagojevich is likely to say, as he has been saying, his words were taken out of context and politics is a tough business that frequently requires tough talk and a lot of bluster to achieve your goals," says defense attorney Michael Petro.

Lawyers say interviews a mistake
Blagojevich admitted to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow that Genson had hoped he would keep his mouth shut and not grant such interviews.

Most Chicago lawyers agree with Genson that the interviews were a mistake.

"It's potentially disastrous and makes him look like a clown," Cavise said.

But the elder Adam said Thursday that he saw no problem.

"When he goes to trial he's going to have to answer questions, and the only drawback would be if he said something in the media that would go to impeach his credibility at the trial and as far as I know he didn't," he said.

Fireworks to keep the jury entertained
No one doubts that if the father-son legal duo — "the two Sams" — take the case to trial they'll arrive with a full supply of fireworks to keep the jury entertained.

The elder Adam is a serious legal scholar with an offbeat sense of humor and a flair for the dramatic — some say the eccentric. He once dug his thick fingers into the crop of pure white hair sported by a client, a judge accused of corruption, right after imploring jurors to "send this good man back to his wife of 50 years and 23 grandchildren." They looked startled, but later acquitted him.

People who know him best warn against taking the elder Adams for a lightweight.

"Anybody who would write him off as a mere character would be underestimating his ability as a lawyer," says defense attorney Thomas M. Breen. "He has over the years tried some of the most difficult cases with the most unpopular defendants."

Dramatic touch on display at Kelly trial
His son's dramatic touch was on display at the Kelly trial.

Samuel E. Adam pounded his fist, yelled, whispered and pleaded with jurors to believe his client was not the man they saw on the sex tape with an underage girl.

"It ain't him," he whispered. "And if it ain't him, you can't convict."

The jurors' verdict was not guilty, and Kelly grabbed the hefty, 35-year-old Adam and crushed him in a bear hug of gratitude.

The senior Adam has been known for decades as part of a legal trinity that included Genson and Eugene Pincham, a former judge who gave up his black robe to return to the tough world of criminal defense. The E. in Samuel E. Adam is Eugene for both Pincham and Eugene V. Debs, the left-wing labor leader of a century ago who ran for president on the Socialist ticket.

"If there were a hall of fame for Chicago criminal defense lawyers, all three would be there," says Michael Ettinger, an attorney for the former governor's brother, Robert Blagojevich, who has not been charged with wrongdoing.

The governor had signed up with Genson, former newspaper baron Conrad Black's lawyer, last fall.

But before long, Genson was grumbling that he was no longer in contact with the Sams, and on Jan. 23 he told reporters he intended to withdraw from the case.

"I never require a client to do what I say," Genson said. "I do require a client to listen to what I say."

The elder Adam said Genson might return to the case. Genson declined to discuss it on the record. They have fought side by side in some of Chicago's biggest cases.