What the judge says in his soft bench voice will echo across a state where previous sentences for guilty officials haven't deterred a culture of political sleaze. There were hints Tuesday that the enduring public corruption here frustrates Zagel. But for all of its dark excitement and hallway guessing, Tuesday's hearing was bleak. Sad. Infuriating. Wednesday will be the same. Here's why:
Zagel alluded to this collateral damage Tuesday in his comments and questions. He asked whether an unrelated corruption case cited by a defense lawyer had damaged citizens' "trust and confidence." He invoked a prosecution argument that if moderate sentences haven't deterred criminals, "perhaps sentences should be raised." And he dismissed as "absurd" a key defense argument that Blagojevich wasn't an organizer of the corruption around him. The then-governor proved that leadership, Zagel suggested, not by the stature of his office, but by his actions, his "extensive criminal activity."
Most significant: Zagel accepted prosecutors' argument that even if Blagojevich didn't consummate his bribery schemes, his intent to do so should be factored into his sentence. The judge also accepted as correct the prosecutors' calculation that federal sentencing guidelines make Blagojevich eligible for a term of 30 years to life — although the judge added that he agrees with the feds that such a long sentence is "simply not appropriate in the context of this case." Blagojevich reacted stoically, clasping his hands and grating his thumbs against one another.
Defense attorneys begged for mercy, citing "the devastation that his absence would cause for his family." Zagel inquired why that makes Blagojevich different from all the other defendants who stand for sentencing. We'll learn Wednesday whether the defense response — that Blagojevich's commitment to his family is "extraordinary" — sways the judge. So, too, with the first admission from the defense that as governor, yes, Blagojevich committed crimes.
Wednesday belongs to Zagel. He has the last word. This is a moment when a judge — and what a judge says — makes a difference.
You couldn't listen to Zagel on Tuesday and not draw two conclusions:
•This judge, a former head of the Illinois State Police, has no tolerance for public corruption.
•This judge is determined to make a difference.