Lawyers for disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich filed a long-awaited appeal of his conviction and 14-year sentence late Monday, arguing that U.S. District Judge James Zagel’s “one-sided evidentiary rulings” favored prosecutors and that the stiff sentence he imposed was based on vague and speculative evidence.
The 91-page appeal, filed about an hour before a midnight deadline set by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, maintained that Zagel kept Blagojevich’s attorneys from rebutting cooperating government witnesses and pointing out potential biases in their testimony.
Jurors were also wrongly instructed about bribery and fraud laws and how they pertained to “political deal-making,” the appeal argued.
The lower court “misled the jury by failing to explain the legal distinction between campaign contributions and bribes,” the lawyers wrote.
The appeal essentially rehashes arguments Blagojevich’s attorneys unsuccessfully made to Judge James Zagel and jurors in the run-up to and during his two trials, repeating Blagojevich’s claims that he was attempting to make a legitimate “political deal” when he offered to appoint President Obama’s choice for the Senate in return for a post inside Obama’s administration.
Had Blagojevich “not sought a political benefit in return, he would have done a disservice to all of his supporters,” Blagojevich’s attorneys wrote in their appeal, describing the attempted sale of the Senate seat as the “non-existent crime of attempted political horse-trading.”
Likewise Blagojevich’s appeal asserts that he never acted on an illegal offer to accept campaign donations in return for appointing disgraced former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to the Senate.
It argues Blagojevich’s convictions for shaking down a horse racing executive and a children’s hospital should also be tossed because “the government failed to prove an explicit quid pro quo agreement, as required under the law,” adding that the government misinterpreted a “false statement” he was convicted of making to the FBI.
The appeal also points to what it says was a lack of evenhandedness by U.S. District Judge James Zagel throughout Blagojeivch’s two trials.
It alleges Zagel gave Blagojevich little choice but to testify at his retrial after repeatedly ruling arguments the defense viewed as crucial could only be broached by Blagojevich himself from the witness stand. Once on the stand, Zagel prohibited many of those statements, including Blagojevich’s attempt to tell jurors he believed at the time that his actions were legal, it contends.
“Had Blagojevich been permitted to present his good-faith defense, it would have been a powerful defense, likely to produce an acquittal,” his lawyers argue.
The appeal also blames Zagel for allowing a juror who allegedly expressed bias against Blagojevich to remain on the jury despite defense attorneys’ objections. The appeal only referred to the panelist as Juror No. 174, saying he said about Blagojevich during jury selection, “I just figured him, possibly, to be guilty.”
The appeal also raises longstanding claims that Zagel barred FBI wiretap evidence that might have aided the defense, that he sided overwhelmingly with prosecutors and that he miscalculated the appropriate prison term for Blagojevich.
The appeal itself is here.