CHICAGO — Two trials and almost exactly three years after being arrested, Illinois’ ousted governor Rod Blagojevich soon will learn his punishment for corruption convictions that include trying to sell or trade an appointment to the Senate seat being vacated by President Barack Obama.
His sentencing hearing began today, with attorneys discussing the sentencing guidelines with the federal judge who will impose the sentence. U.S. District Judge James Zagel is expected to hear arguments from prosecutors, Blagojevich’s attorney and Blagojevich himself.
The impeached state executive-turned-reality TV star has good reason to feel anxious and afraid at the two-day hearing in Chicago. He faces the prospect of 10 or more years behind bars.
If Zagel settles on a sentence Wednesday of more than a decade, that would make it one of the stiffest penalties imposed for corruption in a state with a long history of crooked politics.
Prosecutors will ask Zagel to imprison the twice-elected governor for 15 to 20 years, arguing he has not only shirked all responsibility for his crimes but repeatedly thumbed his nose at the U.S. justice system.
Blagojevich has already paid a price in public ridicule and financial ruin, the defense argues in proposing a term of just a few years. They also seem bent on an approach judges often frown upon at the sentencing stage: Continuing to insist their client is innocent.
Both sides could finish their pitches to Zagel during Tuesday’s hearing, which was moved to a large ceremonial courtroom to accommodate expected crowds. But Zagel says he’ll wait until Wednesday to pronounce a sentence — possibly so he can sleep on it.
The 70-year-old judge, who played a judge in the 1989 movie “Music Box,” must answer nuanced questions according to complex sentencing algebra, including whether any good Blagojevich accomplished as governor counterbalances the bad.
In describing the humiliation his family has faced, the defense cited Blagojevich’s appearances on NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” where he struggled to use a cellphone, and his wife, Patti, eating a tarantula on the reality show, “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!”
After sentencing, Zagel will likely give Blagojevich weeks before he must report to prison. Once there, the man heard scoffing on FBI wiretaps about earning a low six-figure salary would have to take a prison job — possibly scrubbing toilets — at just 12 cents an hour.
Blagojevich’s sentencing comes just days before his 55th birthday and three years to the week of his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest.
The jury deadlocked in his first trial, agreeing on just one of 24 counts — that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. Jurors at his recent retrial convicted him on 17 of 20 counts, including bribery.
Legal experts have said Blagojevich needs to display some remorse when, as expected, he addresses Zagel Tuesday or Wednesday. But the big unknown is whether the often cocksure ex-governor will beg for mercy at the hearing or yet again protest his innocence.
A flat-out apology isn’t always considered a must. If it isn’t sincere, it can only anger a judge.
The defense could call others to speak in court. But as Blagojevich became politically radioactive, longtime friends scattered, so it’s not clear who would be willing to speak for him now.
Wives often plea for leniency, but Zagel likely wouldn’t view Patti Blagojevich sympathetically. On FBI wiretaps, she was heard encouraging her husband’s bid for campaign cash or a top job in exchange for an appointment to Obama’s vacated seat.