Monday, April 06, 2009

Blagojevich Case Goes to Family Secrets Mob Trial Judge

Fresh off handling one of Chicago's biggest mob cases in decades, U.S. District Judge James Zagel will preside over the corruption case against former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. And it's no accident.

Normally, prosecutors would have issued a new indictment against Blagojevich and a circle of aides, prompting the case to be randomly assigned to a judge. But instead prosecutors on Thursday added the former governor and four top associates to an existing indictment against Springfield power broker William Cellini. That ensured that Blagojevich would be tried before Zagel, who was randomly assigned the Cellini case when it was filed last fall.

Although there's at least a hint of judge-shopping in the move, Chicago lawyers said the decision by prosecutors was permissible and a clever way to keep the Blagojevich case before a judge with whom they are comfortable.

The move had another immediate impact: Terence Gillespie dropped out Friday as Blagojevich's lead attorney because he once helped represent Cellini.

Prosecutors have made no comment on the move, but it can't be argued that the charges against Cellini are unrelated to the schemes detailed in the former governor's sweeping indictment.

Zagel, a Reagan appointee who has served almost 22 years on the federal bench, is widely respected but is seen by many attorneys as generally pro-government.

Some attorneys—none of whom wanted to be quoted by name because they likely will have cases before him again—noting his background as a former director of the Illinois State Police in the 1980s, said he would be more law-enforcement-minded.

Allowing the Blagojevich case to go to a randomly selected judge, although certainly the usual procedure, would have carried some inherent risk for prosecutors. Some judges can be more independent than others, and some are just unpredictable.

The U.S. attorney's office recently was stung when U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur sentenced convicted former Chicago Ald. Edward Vrdolyak to probation and not prison. And the trial of former Gov. George Ryan before U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer was seen by some critics, including one appeals judge, as an out-of-control spectacle with a jury that did as it pleased.

Zagel presided over the landmark Family Secrets trial of top Chicago Outfit bosses in summer 2007, winning praise from lawyers on both sides.

He recently wrapped up the case by sentencing several defendants to life in prison. It was a proceeding that needed careful management with some of Chicago's craftiest defense attorneys and a cast of mob characters including Joey "the Clown" Lombardo and Frank Calabrese Sr.

Thanks to Jeff Coen

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