Law professor: criminal trial could last more than 2 years

While Gov. Blagojevich’s “pay-to-play” political games have resulted in his impeachment by both the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives, there’s most likely at least one more round remaining.

And experts say this one may go into overtime.

“The criminal trial is a long way from being ready to go,” said Andrew Leipold, a University law professor. “The U.S. attorney has not even attained an indictment, hasn’t gotten a formal charge from the grand jury. That’s a necessary first step to a criminal case.”

Prosecutors could bring a corruption indictment against Blagojevich by April.

All told, the process of removing Blagojevich from office is approaching the two-month mark. The ex-governor was arrested by FBI agents at his home in Chicago on Dec. 9, and after overwhelming votes for impeachment from state representatives, can most likely look forward to defending himself in federal court.

But Blagojevich has spent a lot of time this week defending himself in the court of public opinion. Appearing on several national talk shows over the course of a few days, he claimed that the Senate’s procedures were fixed because he could not call witnesses to testify on his behalf. Richard Winkel, a fellow at the University’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs and adjunct law professor, said part of his motivation might have been to influence potential jurors.

Even so, he said he still thought Blagojevich will be tried by an impartial jury. Leipold agreed, explaining he believed Blagojevich will get a fair trial when the time comes.

“There will be plenty of people who either know very little about the substance of the allegations against the governor if he’s put on trial, or will be able to set aside what they’ve heard and consider it based just on the evidence,” Leipold said. “A lot of people knew a lot about (the O.J. Simpson case in the 1990s), and son of a gun, he was acquitted. So yes, he can certainly get a fair trial.”

Winkel added that he believed the case has grown increasingly more intricate since the arrest.

“Now it’s become public, there’s been additional leads developed, and there’s been more witnesses coming forward,” Winkel said. “So it’s become an extraordinarily complex investigation, and I think you’re going to see it ongoing for the next three to six months.”

Christopher Mooney, an IGPA member and professor of political science at the Springfield campus, said the legislature was politically forced to act toward impeachment once the criminal allegations were made public. He also said some of the allegations that come about during the criminal case might go back to the beginning of the governor’s first term.

“You might say that the criminal charges were coming at some point, they were coming for years,” Mooney said. “And we’re going to see that when, in April or May or whenever it’s going to come out, that it’s going to be for a variety of actions that go all the way back to 2003.”

But until Blagojevich is formally charged by the U.S. attorney, the length of his sentence is difficult to determine.

“What does he face? I don’t know. He hasn’t been charged yet. We’ll need to wait and see what’s in the indictment before we know how many counts he faces and what those charges actually are,” Leipold said. “So, too soon to say.”

And as for when the court proceedings might wrap up, Winkel said U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s meticulous nature might contribute to the length of a case that already looked like it would take a while to close.

“Prosecutors being as they are, very thorough and methodical, this will run its course over the next two years at least,” Winkel said.

Impeachment trials v. criminal trials

“An impeachment process is a purely political process. It is not a legal process,” said Tom Rudolph, professor of political science. The two proceedings differ and are similar in some of the fundamentals of their operation.

What impeachment trials don’t have:

Due process

A governor facing impeachment does not have the same rights as criminal defendants do, Rudolph said. The criminal rights are meant to protect fairness in court.

Presumption of innocence

Prosecutors in criminal trials must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. This is not true in impeachment proceedings.

What impeachment trials do have:

Charges

The lower house first brings about the articles of impeachment, which are charges against the accused. The upper house then creates rules for trial and can convict based on the articles.

Presiding judge

The Blagojevich trial was presided over by the Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald. Rudolph said the Senate served as both judge and jury. In order for the ex-governor to be removed from office, two-thirds of the senate had to vote in favor of conviction.

Compiled by Alissa Groeninger