Search goes on for jurors in Blagojevich case

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

CHICAGO -- A video store worker who watches Judge Judy, a woman worried about not being able to use her Oprah tickets and several people concerned about losing their jobs were among those questioned Monday as potential jurors for the corruption retrial of ousted Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.

During interviews of about five minutes each, U.S. District Judge James Zagel continued the search for jurors by asking two dozen prospects how much they followed Blagojevich's first trial last summer. Zagel agreed Monday afternoon to dismiss about half of the would-be jurors questioned.

In his first trial, Blagojevich was found guilty of lying to the FBI but jurors couldn't reach a verdict on any other charges.

Zagel has said he wants 40 in the pool before reaching the final stage of jury selection. He could reach that number as soon as this evening.

Some of those questioned Monday told Zagel they barely followed last year's trial. All said they could be fair if selected to be jurors.

One woman said she'd concluded Blagojevich was "off center" but that her opinion would not affect her ability to render a fair decision.

"He's not on trial for being a little off center," Zagel told her, adding that she would only be asked to assess specific evidence about specific allegations.

Blagojevich, who denies any wrongdoing, scribbled notes on a yellow pad as would-be jurors answered questions.

Many potential jurors said their biggest concern was not about the former governor, but themselves.

They talked about how serving on a jury for a trial that is expected to last several weeks would be financially devastating. An upholsterer and a single mother who is barely making enough money to make ends meet both said they simply could not afford to do it.

"I fear I am going to lose my home," said the single mother, who told the judge that taking time off from the dentist's office where she works just for jury selection has her wondering how she will pay her bills. She and the upholsterer were both excused on grounds of financial hardship.

One woman in her 30s told Zagel she had tickets for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in mid-May and wanted to be sure she could attend. But Zagel ruled later Monday that she would stay in the jury pool.

"Everyone knows this juror will survive," Zagel said about the woman, who had told him earlier that she badly wanted to use her tickets. "I could not have the trial that day (to give her a chance to attend) -- but that would be over the top."

Another woman, who was kept in the jury pool, said that about the closest she got to legal matters was watching Judge Judy on TV.

"It's not much like that here," Zagel told her with a smile. "I don't want you to be disappointed."

A woman in her 70s, who said she makes up to 50 quilts a year, usually for charity, was also among those kept in the jury pool. She wrote on her questionnaire that she wasn't sure cooperating witnesses were trustworthy. Several people taking the stand for Blagojevich have been cooperating with the government.

Zagel told her that she needed to assess a witness' believability one by one at trial.

"It's not that much different than when you had to decide which [of your children] was telling the truth," Zagel said.

The first day of individual questioning of would-be jurors on Thursday revealed most either held unfavorable views of politicians in general or of Blagojevich in particular. All had heard at least something about last year's trial. Those still in the jury pool include a former state prosecutor, a substitute teacher who said she didn't like her job and a recently retired maintenance man who told the court how he once saved up $1,500 to pay to drive a Formula One racecar 177 mph.

Zagel has said he wants to have 12 jurors and six alternates impaneled by Wednesday. The retrial is not expected to last as long as the first 2 1/2-month trial, in part because prosecutors have streamlined their case by dropping complex racketeering charges.

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