Two things were clear Tuesday by the close of the first day of Rod Blagojevich's sentencing hearing: The former governor was likely going to be hit with a stiff sentence, and his legal team had abandoned its early hope of him avoiding prison altogether.
At the same time, Blagojevich's lawyers went to lengths to portray their client as an extraordinarily devoted family man at heart as well as a sensitive, caring politician who deserves leniency.
"Be merciful," Blagojevich's wife, Patti, wrote to U.S. District Judge James Zagel in excerpts from a letter read in court.
"Be merciful," Blagojevich's lawyer Aaron Goldstein also repeated as he closed a lengthy argument that for the first time acknowledged wrongdoing by Blagojevich but also sought to minimize the damage it caused.
Blagojevich has yet to speak on his own behalf. That will come later today before Zagel formally decides how long the ex-governor's punishment is to last for convictions on 18 criminal counts involving the attempted sale of a U.S. Senate seat, illegal shakedowns for campaign cash and lying to federal agents.
But Zagel made it clear that he plans to take a hard-line approach to interpreting sentencing guidelines, siding with prosecutors in their calculation that Blagojevich hoped to squeeze more than $1.6 million in campaign cash from schemes on which he was convicted. Blagojevich's lawyers argued that the numbers weren't real because none of the money was paid and some of the shakedown targets testified they never had any intention of doing so.
The judge also said he did not buy defense arguments that the impeached governor was manipulated by aides and advisers into committing crimes. Zagel said he considered Blagojevich to be the ringleader of a criminal conspiracy, a designation that can lead to a significant increase in prison time under the guidelines.
Prosecutors are asking for a sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison for Blagojevich, and Zagel's comments suggest he could easily settle on something within that range.
"I do believe that is absurd to contend that his staff and advisers would devise criminal schemes whose only aim was to benefit the defendant," the judge said. "He promised them nothing. He was interested in himself."
It was a deeply chastened and somber Blagojevich who appeared in court Tuesday, a stark contrast to the defendant who entered and left court with a swagger during his two criminal trials. Back then, he acted almost as if he was still in campaign mode, glad-handing supporters in and out of the courthouse, waving to cameras and often stopping to proclaim his innocence and attack prosecutors for persecuting him.
On Tuesday, Blagojevich went out of his way to avoid the limelight. He was ushered in and out of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse through a passage not accessible to the public and away from the media glare.
Inside court, which was held in an oversize room usually reserved for public ceremonies, Blagojevich was subdued and even looked sullen on occasion. His wife sat on a spectator bench behind the lawyer's table, sometimes tearing up as her brother and sister consoled her.
On Wednesday, prosecutors will get their chance to explain why they think Blagojevich deserves a long prison term. While Blagojevich's lawyers disagree, they also backed off previous public statements suggesting he was a candidate for probation.
When Zagel flatly asked Goldstein if he sought probation for the former governor, the attorney avoided repeating the word and said only that the defense wanted "the lowest sentence possible."
In legal papers filed with Zagel last week, Blagojevich's legal team came close to suggesting that the former governor still considered himself a victim and did not accept the jury's finding. But in court, Goldstein and other Blagojevich lawyers repeatedly sought to backtrack on that, acknowledging for the first time that he committed crimes.
The marquee allegation in the case was that Blagojevich tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat held by Barack Obama before he went to the White House. And Sheldon Sorosky, another Blagojevich lawyer, said the former governor erred when he asked for a job in return for appointing Obama friend Valerie Jarrett.
"We accept the fact that's a crime, it's illegal, he should not have done it," Sorosky said. "That crime does not call for a 15-year jail sentence."
Likewise, Blagojevich sought campaign donations from supporters of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in exchange for a Jackson appointment to the Senate seat, Sorosky said. He pointed to a 2008 undercover recording of Blagojevich telling his brother, Robert, then his campaign finance chief, that if he appointed Jackson, "some of this stuff has to start happening now."
"He's asking for a contribution here. And that's wrong and he's guilty, but I don't know that that's anywhere near selling a Senate seat for $1.5 million," Sorosky said. "And once again this does not call for a sentence of 15 years in jail."
The defense repeatedly turned to Blagojevich's family to hit the most emotional notes of the hearing's first day. The lawyers said the family would be devastated if its husband and father is taken away for a decade or more.
"Your honor, I ask you humbly with the life of my husband and the childhood of my daughters in your hands, be merciful," Patti Blagojevich wrote to Zagel in a letter from which Goldstein quoted.
Goldstein also read messages that Blagojevich wrote several years ago to his now-teenage daughter, Amy, when she was on a school trip. Amy was coming home the next day, and Blagojevich described how he couldn't wait to see her.
The attorney also read passages to the judge from a letter Amy wrote recently about her father. In a message to the court prepared as part of the defense presentation, Amy said one of the few good things about her father's criminal case has been that he has been home a lot with her.
"He's been here to help me with my homework," she wrote. "He's been here to teach me life lessons."
She, too, asked the court for mercy, describing how her life has been turned on its head and how a long sentence would make it worse.
"It's too drastic a change. I need my father," she wrote. "I need him there for my high school graduation. I'll need him there if I don't get into college.
"I'll need him when my heart gets broken."
Goldstein rattled through a litany of other public corruption cases that Blagojevich contends were far worse but still yielded lighter sentences. Many involved public officials who directly pocketed bribes in exchange for government action, while Blagojevich was asking only for campaign donations, got no money and ultimately didn't use his power to punish those who didn't give to him.
"It wasn't cash in an envelope," said Carolyn Gurland, another Blagojevich lawyer.
Even the added element of Blagojevich's nonstop publicity campaigns railing against prosecutors has been seen before — and not produced a sentence like the one the government is now seeking, the defense said.
Don Siegelman, a former governor of Alabama, was charged in a corruption case and repeatedly painted himself as the victim of a government conspiracy, Goldstein said. He received a little more than seven years in prison.
Gurland asked Zagel not to sentence Blagojevich to a stiff term in order to send a broader message to other politicians. Blagojevich shouldn't feel the brunt of a government effort to get ever-tougher prison terms for politicians who seemingly never learn not to illegally self-deal, she said.
Punishing Blagojevich for the wrongs of figures such as former Gov. George Ryan, Blagojevich's predecessor who is now in prison, would be "demonstrably unfair to Mr. Blagojevich," Gurland said.
Tribune reporter Annie Sweeney contributed.Copyright © 2015, RedEye