Days into deliberations at former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's first corruption trial last August, a juror looked around the tense room, pointed to a spot in the corner and suggested they put a Christmas tree there. At the rate they were going, he joked, they could find themselves still deliberating in December.
Humor was one of the keys to jurors' survival through 11 weeks of testimony and 14 days of sometimes contentious deliberations in Blagojevich's first corruption trial that ended with them deadlocked on all but one of 24 counts.
As jury selection comes to a head this week in the ousted governor's retrial, the first trial's jurors say they've moved on with their lives, but they have some advice for their successors: Keep things light, take detailed notes and avoid the oppressive media crush after the verdict by telling the story of what happened in the jury room right away.
"You've got to lighten the mood," said Erik Sarnello, 21, a sophomore in forensic chemistry at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He says he spent much of the trial joking around in the jury room, but got down to business during deliberations. "You can't be too serious about it."
Jury selection in the retrial has so far highlighted a challenge for the new crop of jurors that their predecessors didn't face. That is whether they can put aside all they inevitably heard about the dramatic, at times circus-like first trial, as well as any prior feelings about Blagojevich and the charges against him including accusations that he tried to sell President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel questioned about 20 of 150 prospective jurors and eliminated about half of them on Thursday based on challenges from prosecutors and the defense. At least one was dismissed for medical reasons and several for financial hardship, while others asked whether they'd be able to juggle the civic duty with their regular jobs.
"I'm not saying it's a pleasant experience," Zagel responded to one juror about balancing work and jury duty.
Jury selection resumes Monday, with the judge questioning each potential juror based on a 38-page questionnaire they filled out, covering everything from their careers to their opinions about whether politicians take bribes. The retrial is not expected to last as long as the first trial, but will still take many weeks.
Prosecutors have streamlined their case against the disgraced governor, dropping some of the most complex charges to address complaints by the jury that the evidence was too hard to follow. Blagojevich now faces 20 charges.
Stephen Wlodek, the juror who made the Christmas tree suggestion, warned jurors to focus on the facts.
"It's really easy to play what-ifs," he said. "You've got to stick to what's presented by the prosecution and the defense. Stick to the data and just go off of it. Your mind starts playing tricks with you."
The complexity of the case and the number of witnesses — prosecutors called 30 at the first trial — is one reason it's so important to take good notes, said jury foreman James Matsumoto.
"They didn't make it easy for us," he said, noting the 104 pages of jury instructions and hundreds of pages of transcripts from months of federal wiretap recordings of Blagojevich's home and campaign headquarters.
Jurors who had noted details during the trial fared better during deliberations, jurors said, especially as they argued over the evidence.
A single juror who refused to go along with the rest of the panel was the only thing that prevented Blagojevich from being convicted on the most serious charge of trying to sell or trade Obama's Senate seat.
That juror, JoAnn Chiakulas, has said she felt tremendous pressure to change her vote during deliberations and to defend her decision once the trial was over. On 11 of the 24 counts, jurors were split 11 to 1 in favor of conviction, but Chiakulas stood her ground, insisting she just didn't see what they saw.
"I admired her," Matsumoto said. "To stick to your guns when everyone is against you is tough."
Unlike other jurors, Chiakulas initially avoided the media "onslaught" immediately after the trial. Many jurors say they think it was a misstep for Chiakulas to try and avoid the media right after the trial.
"To disappear for a few days" made things worse, Matsumoto said.
He and others said they wish they'd thrown off how hot, tired and drained they were and taken the judge up on an offer of speaking to the media the day of the verdict rather than having reporters trying to track them down afterward.
Since the trial, life has returned to normal for the jurors, though they say it has forever changed the way they view politics. They've returned to school, work and for those like the 66-year-old Matsumoto, are enjoying their retirement. Several jurors and alternates had a reunion at a suburban Chicago restaurant in February.
This time around, Wlodek said he's closely following the retrial, "I'll be glued to it," he said. Matsumoto said he hopes to attend at least a few days of testimony.
And perhaps the most important piece of advice for the new jurors?
Get plenty of sleep to prepare for long days of droning testimony, repetitive questioning and witnesses who speak in monotones.
"If you can keep awake, it's a very interesting case," Matsumoto said.
- Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich
- the juror
- jury duty
- jury instructions
- President Barack Obama s
- U.S. District Judge James Zagel