"Blagojevich jury room filled with heated arguments"

By Sarah Ostman and Rumanna Hussain
Chicago Sun-Times
Aug. 18, 2010

Referred to by number, escorted by court marshals, they were a disciplined and orderly group that was never absent, never late, and, according to the judge, never raised their voices.

But jurors in Rod Blagojevich’s federal corruption trial paint a different picture of their deliberations — one filled with heated arguments and unbending opinions.

The jurors were all “independent people’’ with “strong personalities,’’ said jury foreman James Matsumoto, 66. From the start, tensions ran high.

“Some people came in headhunting,” said juror Erik Sarnello, 21. “One person said, ‘I want [Blagojevich’s] head on a plate.’ By the end, everybody was kind of logical.’’

After 14 days in the jury room, the six men and six women finally acknowledged Monday they would be able to reach a unanimous verdict on only one of the 24 counts.

While some votes were split 7-5, 6-6 or 9-3, the most explosive of the charges — that Blagojevich tried to sell Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat — came down to a single hold-out vote, jurors said.

That one hold-out — a woman whom her colleagues declined to single out — felt she had not gotten the “clear-cut evidence” she needed to convict, Sarnello said.

“Say it was a murder trial — she wanted the video,” Sarnello said. “She wanted to hear [Blagojevich] say, ‘I’ll give you this for that.’ . . . For some people, it was clear. Some people heard that. But for some, it wasn’t clear.’’

Matsumoto said jurors were also overwhelmed by the number of counts and the amount of evidence in the case. While the secret recordings were “damning,” he said, it wasn’t enough for all the jurors.

“The lack of a smoking gun was one of the major flaws,’’ the foreman said.

Sarnello said jurors were also frustrated by a lack of order in the government’s case.

“It confused some people, just the way they presented it,” said Sarnello, a student from Itasca. Prosecutors “didn’t really follow a timeline at all.”

So in the jury room, jurors created their own timelines on large sheets of paper, charting out each of the years from 2001 to the ex-governor’s 2008 arrest.

They postponed discussing a list of 11 wire fraud counts, reasoning that these charges were related to other topics they were already talking about. Instead, they focused on the most explosive Senate seat charges.

Matsumoto, a Vietnam veteran and retired videotape librarian who voted the Blagojevich brothers guilty on all counts, said by day 14, the jury was “exhausted.”

“The deliberations were constant from the time we went into the jury room until [Tuesday],” Matsumoto said. “I kind of enjoyed it, the trial part. But as soon as we started deliberations, it was very troubling, and very hectic and exhausting.”

The government on Tuesday said they would re-try the case against the Blagojevich brothers. If that’s the case, Matsumoto said, prosecutors should focus more on the Senate seat charges and simplify the rest.

He also said he would have liked to hear from convicted businessman and Republican political insider Stuart Levine, a Blagojevich appointee who wasn’t called to testify. But Matsumoto and Sarnello both said the ex-governor’s failure to testify didn’t affect their votes.

After a summer in a Dirksen Federal Building filled with media, some jurors on Tuesday evening had clearly had enough.

Cynthia Parker, 60, drove into the garage of her townhouse in Gurnee without stopping to talk. Before closing the garage door, she was asked if she agreed with the verdict.

“I have nothing to say,” Parker said. “I’m tired, and I’m sick.”

The father of Jacklyn Ferino, 28, of Crestwood, said it was unlikely she would come home Tuesday.

His daughter “is just tired and needed a break,’’ Tom Ferino said.

Juror Jesse Blue, 72, pulled into the garage of his Matteson home at 6:50 p.m. and declined to talk to reporters waiting for him.

“I have nothing to say,’’ he said, adding that he wasn’t happy with the outcome. “It’s been a long day.’’

Sarnello, a student at a community college who voted Blagojevich guilty on all but two counts, said he didn’t register for fall classes because he thought the jury would still be deliberating in October.

That gives him some time to rethink his career plans. He planned a future in law enforcement but said this trial changed his mind.

“I might be a lobbyist after this,” he said. “I’ve seen all the money they make.’’

Contributing: Irv Leavitt, Michael Drakulich, Joe Biesk, Cheryl V. Jackson, Dan Rozek, Rose Sobol, Kim Janssen, Art Golab, Steve Warmbir