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The Blagojevich trial: Now what?

Politics Daily's Andrew Cohen explains the significance of the non-verdict verdict. For starters, it means the Blago-rama continues for another year.
/ Source: Politics Daily

Whatever else it means, the desultory end Tuesday to the federal corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich ensures we are stuck with the knucklehead at least through most of 2011. He won't be going to prison anytime soon for the one (of 24) counts for which he was convicted after a multimillion dollar trial. But he won't be receding into history, either, on account of a prompt decision by federal prosecutors to declare they intend to retry him for allegedly trying to sell former President Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder. Think Blagojevich I was a barnburner? What until you get a load of Blagojevich, Part Deux, the Sequel, the Revenge.

I kid. There are a lot of different layers of meaning to the jury's inability to render any sort of meaningful verdict after months of trial and weeks of deliberations. The easiest and most simple explanation is that there was a holdout thwarting the will of the other 11 jurors. And, indeed, one juror evidently said Tuesday after the fact that there was a holdout who "just didn't see what we all saw." If that's what happened here, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald no doubt will see a silver lining, tinker a bit with the presentation of his case next time out, and spend a whole lot more time and attention on jury selection.

It's also possible that federal prosecutors are kicking themselves right now for a lost opportunity. Did they, as Blagojevich's lawyers claim, stop their case fatally short, erroneously believing they would later supplement their case by attacking the former governor's story on cross-examination? Were they so cocky about those famous wiretaps that they didn't pour it on the way they should have? Did they not sufficiently explain all those cuss words uttered by Blagojevich as he sought to wheel and deal? Were they too complicated or not complicated enough? You can be sure they'll be talking to the jurors to get a sense of what they could have done better. Same goes for Team Blagojevich. If the score here really was 11-1 against, they ought not now be potted plants.

Another layer of meaning comes from the fact that this case never quite fit the typical pegs that we like to give to federal criminal cases. There was no violent crime here — so there were no grieving family members of the victim attending the trial. This was not a case of terrorism. But the defendants in the dock were not white-collar criminals, either. So who are the real victims of the crimes with which Blagojevich was charged? Who lost of a life, or a limb, or a pension, or a life's fortune, off of Blagojevich's conduct (no matter how heinous we may feel it was)? The fact that Fitzgerald was able to convict I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby in similar circumstances (President George W. Bush later granted him clemency) didn't translate into a victory. Jurors, it seems, will still always give prosecutors more of the benefit of the doubt when there are real, tangible "victims" to account for.

Looking for a more political layer of meaning? How about the notion that jurors in America today — like the rest of us — are so disgusted with politics and politicians, the selling of political seats, and the grotesque bargaining that we are now essentially forgiving criminal conduct as "business as usual." It's easy to hear from the voice of our alleged "lone holdout" the following [fictitious] quote: "Why is what this guy did different in tone or tenor from what a thousand hack politicians do every day in Chicago and Washington and everywhere else in America?" Is it possible that "routine" politics have become so venal and unbecoming that we cannot distinguish it from official corruption and fraud and obstruction? And if so, how ironic that the political judgment against Blagojevich was so swift and stern compared with the still-looming legal judgment.

Deep stuff. So maybe you want to flit about a bit in some lighter fare. I am struck by the fact that Blagojevich, the reality show wannabe, now has been convicted of the very same federal crime — lying to a federal agent — that took down Martha Stewart. It's true. I was there. Stewart was convicted of making false statements and ended up serving six months in prison followed by a few luxurious months in home detention. If the feds offer a similar deal — six months in prison then a few months at Stewart's mansion — I'd make the deal if I were Blagojevich. Think of how much money the two would make on that reality show!

I kid again. Tuesday's non-verdict verdict was a rare but permanent blemish on Fitzgerald's impressive record as a prosecutor of the high and mighty. It is a temporary victory for the defendants; the sort of victory that generates a special sort of political luster. It says mostly about Chicago juries that they sure must like their free lunches every day to have stayed deadlocked like that for nearly two weeks. And it guarantees us another year, at least, of Blagojevich-o-rama. The hair. The defiance. The whole shebang. The sequel isn't likely to be as dramatic as the original; they rarely are. But I'm betting next time we'll have a happy ending, one way or the other.